04 February, 2010

Soon......Very Soon

Ready, Set,  Sow : Almost Time to Plant Seeds
By Greg Draiss
Welcome to the last half of winter. When March arrives it  can be a transitional month in the weather department should the snow pack melt and warm winds caress the region. March madness strikes all of us not just basketball fans. Everybody is madly Irish on the 17th. I am mad that I am getting closer to the dreaded 50 and my promised mid life crisis that will accompany it.  Even though I have two years yet to go. And gardeners grow mad with from cabin fever by replacing it with spring fever.
The earliest gardening creeps into the calendar is old wive's tale number 386 subsection A: Sow pea seeds on St. Patrick's Day. Did one ever consider from what part of the North American Continent this old wife resided? Perhaps closer to the Mason Dixon Line one could get away with sowing peas on St. Patrick's Day. One look out the window tells me the only seeds we will sowing on St. Patrick's Day are seeds of hope (that the mercury will rise above 50* soon) and seeds of despair (quite often it snows one last blast between March 1 and the April Showers). At any rate the only thing going in my garden hope chest right now is the fact I hope my back holds out long enough to build six more raised beds this spring.
The above dire warnings and pessimism should not keep the gardener from planning. For there are some seeds that need to get started soon indoors. Seeds have five simple requirements in order to reward us at a later date: a container, soil, water, light, and heat.  Seeds are fussy about most of these requirements. However, we have better control over all these needs indoors than relying on fickle Mother Nature to dole out these needs even keeled.
For a real local take on seeds visit seedlibrary.org. Here gardeners can "borrow"
seed from the library, grow them, then harvest the vegetables or herbs. The neat part is the library asks that you dry the seeds and return them to the library for someone else to do the same next year. The theory is that over several seasons these seeds develop traits that make hem thrive in the Hudson Valley!  Makes sense to me. I believe in creation not evolution but I do know for a fact that plants, and animals adapt to the regions they live in. This adaptation theory is especially easy to understand for plants since annuals sprout, flower and produce seed all in one season making their survival in the future dependant on adapting to the environment very quickly.  
Containers for seeds can be anything that hold soil and has adequate drainage. Egg cartons especially the cardboard kind are perfect. The "cups" can usually be planted right into the garden since they will break down. The lids on egg cartons are a great way to control moisture and warmth until germination takes place. For kids egg cartons are great. For smaller seed starting projects yogurt cups and foam coffee cups are perfect vessels. The trick for using these is turn them upside down cut out the bottoms and poke small drainage holes in the lids. Inverted coffee and yogurt containers are great for small hands since and upside down cup is less likely to fall over.
Instead of adding more plastic to the waste stream traditional seed four packs and six packs that fit into standard growers flats are also made from compressed peat moss. When ready to go into the garden the whole cup or cell is planted into the garden. Over time the peat cup bio-degrades and becomes part of the soil. The added benefit is there is no shock to the root system.
Soil is a complex and personal issue with many gardeners. Old time gardeners for years got away with using soil straight from the garden. Garden soil though rich in nutrients is also heavy. Experienced gardens take this into consideration and watered accordingly. For most gardeners heavy soil from outdoors is not suited for seed starting. Professional or light weight soil mixes now account for over 90% of sales for indoor or container use. They are blends of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. All natural materials in abundant supply they work together to supply the right mix of air, and water holding capacity. There are many brands on the market and most are suitable for all growing needs. There are now certified organic soils free of chemical fertilizers.
Moisture is needed not only for seedlings to uptake nutrients but also to break down their protective seed coat or shell. Moisture works in combination with soil temperature to soften the seed coat in order for the cotyledons and initial roots to burst forth and begin growing. Again controlling moisture levels in soil is critical for seedling success. A very good way to get the right moisture level in the seed bed is to pre-moisten your soil mix. When moisture level is adequate you should be able to  squeeze a handful of soil in your hand and form a small ball or clump. Soil that is too dry will not hold together in a clump. Soil that is too wet will ooze like a running faucet. A few drops are ok. Another benefit of pre-moistening the soil is the fact that seeds will not be disturbed by a blast of water from a watering can. Also most of the excess air pockets are removed and thus the soil will not settle to the bottom of the container.
When the pre-moistened soil is in the containers it is now time to sow seeds  Place seeds that grow with singles stems 2-3 seeds per cell or container. Plants that grow with multiple stems (chives, alyssum, parsley etc) sow as many as you like into the container. Multiple stem, or spreading plants do not need to be separated.
After sowing seeds  label the container or tray with the date, seed type, and approx days or date of germination. This practice will help you keep track of what you planted when and how well the seeds are progressing. Then place the containers on top of a warm spot. Refrigerators, water heaters and good old fashioned radiators serve as excellent sources of bottom heat. If none of these are available purchase a heat mat suited for seed starting. A soil temperature of approximately 70-75*F is needed for germinating seeds.
Light becomes a factor only after germination. In fact most seeds do not require any light germinate.
As soon as seeds germinate it is important to remove them form the warm bottom heat and place them in bright light. At this time it is also important for seedlings to be in a cooler environment. Too warm a temperature and seedlings will stretch and become spindly. Cool temperatures around 60* keep the young plants short and stocky.
Many potting mixes today contain fertilizers so feeding new seedlings need not be done until planting out time. Any general purpose fertilizer will help new seedlings grow well.
May 15th is the average last frost date for the Mid Hudson Valley. This date is important for seed starting because it determines the timing of starting seeds indoors. On the back of seed packs there will be instructions as to when to start seeds indoors. Often the timing will say "start indoors 4 to 6 weeks before last frost date in your area". Since the last frost date in our area is May 15th. Four to six weeks before that date would be April 1st to 15th. Start seeds before that date and you run the risk of having plants outgrow their surroundings and become leggy. Start seeds too long after the suggest date and your plants may not have enough time to grow and produce the flowers or vegetables you worked so hard on. 

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