Seeds. Such amazing things. Seeds provide not only food for us (rice, corn, wheat, oats, pecans), but symbols that have colored our language through time. We speak of seed money, the seed of an idea, and fishermen refer to young oysters used for transplanting as seed oysters. This week I’m continuing my love affair with seeds and seed-starting with Part Two of how to start your own plants from seed.
Last week we learned about which containers are best to use, what temperature is ideal for seed germination, and what kind of soil is best for starting seeds. Today we’ll cover what seeds need in the way of moisture, light, air, and fertilizer.
Like Goldilocks’ porridge preferences of not too hot and not too cold, plants don’t like it too wet or too dry. Seeds need to be constantly moist in order to germinate. Moderation, folks. Don’t let the growing mix dry out or remain soggy-wet.
After you sow the seeds, make sure the growing mix is nice and damp. Then cover the container with a clear cover to slow evaporation, but allow light in. Check every day for signs of germination and remove the cover as soon as a sprout emerges. That way, air can circulate around the seedlings. Water with a fine spray of warm water or water from the bottom.
Let there be light
Seedlings grown in weak, winter light become lanky, pale and terribly weak. When planted outside they topple over with the slightest breeze. What causes this? Lack of light. To be healthy, strong and able to withstand the outside world, seedlings need 14-16 hours of light from the moment they germinate. They also need about 8 hours of darkness to process their food and grow.
I don’t recommend growing seedlings on a windowsill because they are poorly lit. Plant stems lean and stretch toward the light and eventually develop into weaklings. If windowsills are your only option though, rotate the containers daily so they don’t have to stretch and reach for the light. And try to provide additional light or at least a reflector to bounce light back onto the seedlings.
I prefer to nurture seedlings under fluorescent lights. They’re inexpensive and the bulbs are easy to replace — something you should do annually since the light intensity decreases significantly, even in the first few months of use. You might think keeping bulbs longer saves money, but it’s not worth it when your seedlings are compromised.
As your plants grow, adjust the height of the lights so they remain 2-4 inches above the seedlings.
Thinning is beautiful
When your seedlings put out their first “true” leaves (usually the second set), that’s your cue to transplant them to a larger container. Now to transplant a seedling, avoid grasping the stem. Rather, gently pinch the leaves. Then with a narrow tool such as butter knife or pencil, gently slide it down along the seedling root and lift it up. Place it into a pre-moistened, soil-filled container, slightly deeper than it was in their flats. Firm soil around the seedlings and water if needed.
Get me some air, please
We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; plants breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. A match made in heaven. But for indoor plants to get all the CO2 they need, it helps to set up a fan; Even a little one, to create a breeze.
Like doing resistance workouts at the gym, air movement strengthens stems and prepares seedlings for the great outdoors. Air movement helps prevent “damping off,” a disease caused by a fungus that attacks the plant at the soil line. One day they look healthy and then the day they’ve collapsed onto the soil. Dead air means danger.
How to feed a plant
After transplanting, fertilize once a week with a weak organic fertilizer. You can do this by bringing the outdoors in. Take a handful of finished compost and a handful of kelp and stir it into a bucket of water. Stir it every day and after a week it should be ready. To feed your plants, dilute the concentrate with water until it resembles a weak tea.
My ho follow the suggestions I’ve outlined in recent columns, your seed starting should be trouble free. Stuff happens, though. Like aphids. If they appear, blast them with water or spray them with insecticidal soap. Finally, your seedlings don’t come equipped with Xtratufs, so don’t over-water.