KODIAK — Why are so many people hesitant to start their own seeds?
I asked this question of Ed Hume when I was a guest on his radio show.
Ed Hume and his family-owned company, Ed Hume Seeds, is synonymous with cool-climate gardening in the Pacific Northwest. The ultimate promoter, Ed’s Gardening in America TV show was the longest running gardening show in the world. At one point, it reached 50 million households in the U.S. and Japan.
Though Ed has since turned his Washington-based company over to his sons, the business continues to be a popular source of seeds suitable for cool climates.
Back to my question.
Ed smiled, turned his head and replied, “Because most experts make it sound complicated, as if your life depended on it.”
For many people, panic sets in with the mere thought of planting a seed. How can a tiny green sprout cause so much stress?
No worries. Seeds are easier than puppies to nurture to adulthood.
Today’s column is part one of two on growing your own seedlings.
I love starting seeds. Ever since I grew sunflowers in an orange and white milk carton in the second grade. It’s rewarding, fun and gets you outside. Plus, seedlings don’t care if you’re having a bad hair day. And, it’s economical, like having money in the bank. A three-dollar packet of seeds yields 200 heads of broccoli. Do the math. You also benefit by growing at least some of your own food.
INFORMATION IS POWER
When you pick up an envelope of seeds, turn it over. There you’ll find tons of how-to-grow info. Most annual flower, herb and vegetable seeds don’t require special treatment to achieve good germination. Start by checking the recommended sowing dates on the packages. Some seeds, such as parsley, celery, lobelia and Sweet Alyssum take a lot longer to germinate than others.
What is a frost-free date?
To get a more exact sowing date, you need to know the frost-free date. This is the approximate date of the last spring frost. For Kodiak, it’s somewhere between May 1 and May 30.
That said, know your micro-climate. Weather conditions in town can be vastly different from Bells Flats. One more variable: for gardeners growing under the protection of plastic in the form of low tunnels and hoophouses, the planting date can be as early as February or March.
A LITTLE MATH
To determine the sowing date, count back with the number of weeks required to grow the transplants. For example, sowing instructions for kale, found on the back of the seed packet, states: “Sow 3-4 weeks before transplanting to the garden.”
Now, if you decide that May 15 is your target date for transplanting seedlings outside, then counting backwards four weeks gives you a sowing date of April 15. Nice diversion for tax-day, right?
CONTAINERS TO USE
Standard seed-starting containers, also known as six-packs, will streamline your seed-starting efforts. But you can also DIY with yogurt containers, Dixie cups and salad-bar trays. Just make sure your containers are at least 3 inches deep, have holes in the bottom and are clean. Many gardeners disinfect containers by dipping them in a mild bleach solution.
For simplicity, you can use peat pellets, which, when soaked in water, swell to seven times their size. But peat pellets tend to be on the expensive side and are not user-friendly. For example, instructions say they can be planted directly in the garden when the seedlings are ready. Sounds convenient, but the outer mesh doesn’t readily decompose in our cooler soils.
WHAT SOIL IS BEST FOR STARTING SEEDS?
Sterile is key here, which means do not use soil from the garden to start seedlings indoors. Otherwise, you run the risk of introducing weeds and disease organisms that are detrimental to your seedlings. It’s best to purchase a seed-starting medium.
I learned this the hard way. One year, I sowed hundreds of vegetable, flower and herb seeds. The seedlings sprouted only to have many of them succumb to “damping off” disease by rotting at the soil-line. So, I don’t start seeds in anything but a sterile medium, a commercially prepared ‘soil-less mix’, which can be found in local stores. A blend of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite, these mixes are sterile and have a finer texture compared to bagged potting soil.
THE IDEAL TEMPERATURE
Remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Goldilocks goes for a walk in the forest and comes to a house. She knocks, walks right in and at the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.
“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
“This porridge is too cold,” she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.
“Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily, and she ate it all up.
The general rule for seed starting is much the same: Not too warm and not too cold. In other words, start seeds warm but grow seedlings cool. And don’t try to start your seeds on a cool windowsill. Check the seed package for the optimum soil temperature, but you’ll find that most seeds germinate best in warm, cozy soil. One trick is to germinate seeds in the warmth of your kitchen and then move them to a cooler space, such as a garage. If your area is too cool, a seedling heat mat may be your best option.
Next week, I’ll talk about moisture, light, air and fertilizer for seedlings.
After my stint on Ed Hume’s radio show, we chatted a while in the hallway. He offered a few gems of wisdom.
“Tell your readers, Marion, to keep things simple. Step back and look at it from a practical point of view. Practical has everything to do with the success of gardening.”
Marion Owen has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives. To contact Marion or to sign up for her “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, go to her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com.