04 February, 2011

Seed Starting: Gettin to the Root of the Issue

Both famous ground hogs did not see their shadows last week.In facet nobody has seen their shadow since August! Punxatawny Phil and Staten Island Chuck failed to have the sun gods cast shadows of doubt upon the arrival of spring. And with the way the weather has been this winter the arrival of spring can be a glorious thing. There is another event that signifies the halfway point through winter. Seed packs have arrived in garden centers. In fact not just seed packs but peat pots, trays, seed starting soils, lights and more. It is a surprising fact that winter is the shortest season of the year at 93 days with Summer actually being  the longest season. trust me I read it on the Internet so it has to be true. 
While spring is still six weeks away regardless of what some hibernating animals tell us there are a few seeds that could, notice could, be started now in order to get them into bloom for our Hudson Valley growing season. The backs of seed packs describe the timing for sowing seeds indoors or outdoors. The usual verbiage is a determined number of weeks before the last frost date. For instance  a pack may say start indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date. Well frost dates are different across the country. The South of course has an earlier last frost date than we do. A seed company however does not know you live when you pick up their seed pack. The last frost date in the Hudson Valley is on average May 15th. There has been however frost as late as Memorial Day with increasing occurrence in this region. A seed pack stating start seeds 8 weeks before last frost date would mean starting the seeds indoors on or around March 15th.
Do you rally have to wait until March 15th to start seeds? Well no you don't. In fact there are some seeds which must be started now if you hope to have any flowers by the start of summer. Geraniums must be started by Feb 15th in order to have the seedlings strong enough to withstand cool spring weather and bloom by summer. While they are called Patient Lucys in Great Britain they are misnamed here in the U.S. What are the misnamed bedding plants? Impatiens............they grow so slowly they need to be started 10 weeks, March 1st, to be ready for planting out around the middle of May.
Flowers are not the only seeds needing an early start. Jalapeno peppers take a while to get under way. Jalapeno could be started as late as March 15th however they are better off hitting the seed flats on the first of March Bell peppers on the other hand can wait until the first of April. I would suggest getting them in the same time as the hot peppers. An interesting fact is there are some hot weather vegetables that need extremely long seasons but cannot be started indoors with their other warm weather friends. Melons for example need very long growing seasons. It would seem to make sense to start them indoors and give them a head start. But since melons  and cantaloupe are vines the end result of starting them indoors would be you own version of Little Shop of Horrors. The vines grow very fast but the flowers and fruit lag well behind the growth spurts of the vines.
The vast majority of seeds need darkness in order to germinate. Seeds require a snug warm moist environment to begin the germination process. Air temperature is not critical at this point but will play a pivotal role in how sturdy seedlings are down the road. Soil temperature should be 70*-75* for seeds to germinate properly without rotting. Seed packs will list days to germination. Some seeds germinate very quickly others like olive seeds taking 10-16 months. It is very important to place some kind of label on the flats or containers seeds are growing in. The information on the label should be the variety of plant growing, date seed was planted and how many days to germination. The name of the plant is a no brainer. But putting the date of sowing and days to germination allows more detailed control over the crop and assist in timing should something go wrong. If a label says 10 days to germination and nothing has shown after 21 you know something is wrong. Days to germination and date of planting go hand in hand. Only listing days to germination is no good if you don't know when they were planted.
To keep the soil warm  a heat mat is a godsend. Heat mats fit perfectly under seed flats and gently warm the soil and nothing else. A clear plastic dome of two or more inches high helps to keep the humidity high and control temperature as well. A tall dome 5-7 inches tall with adjustable events is even better allowing for total control over seedlings and young plants. Keep the heat mat on until you see young shoots appearing from the soil. Shortly after their emergence remove the ehat mat.
Young seedlings now need bright light, even direct sunlight, to maintain growth. What they don't need however is high heat. High temps cause plants to respirate faster. Fast respiration requires more nutrition. Plants need sunlight to complete the nutritional cycle of photosynthesis. However in February and even April the sun is still very low in the sky and as well the strength of the sunlight is weak. Weak light combined with high temps cause plants to stretch towards the sun or light source in order to make photosynthesis happen. The way to combat spindly stems is cool temperatures say 55*-65*. Cooler temps slow down respiration in plants thus slowing their need for sunlight.
An additional strategy is to place grow lights just above the tops of young plants about 4-6 inches over the top set of leaves. This best done with florescent grow lights especially the newer T5 high output bulbs. T5s are 40% smaller than regular T8 styles and their light output is double. T5 light fixtures with adjustable heights are readily available in two and four foot lengths.
Any well drained soil will grow a great crop for you. I am partial to lightweight soiless blends that are peat moss based. These blends drain extremely well and contain a large percentage of air space for young roots to penetrate. However any soil can grow seeds if you are careful about watering. Adding compost or worm castings to any soil will aid in growth and provide some much needed nutrients.
Once seeds have sprouted they have no storage of food needed to grow. If our soil mix does not have any fertilizer mixed in you will need to begin a feeding program. I prefer to feed every time I water so that I can maintain an even supply of fertilizer in the soil. Erratic uneven feeding leads to plants with grow spurts followed by periods of little growth as the supply of nutrients in the soil dwindles. To use a continuous feed program simply reduce the amount of fertilizer recommended on the package to 1/8 recommended dose.
By mid April days will be warming and your seedlings will love being outdoors on 60* days. Just remember to bring them back indoors at night so they don't get cold or freeze.
Want to learn more about starting seeds in greater detail? Stop by Adams Fairacre Farms  Saturday, February 12th, at 1PM where I will be lecturing on the subject of seed starting. 

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