Lettuce seedlings

The proof’s in the lettuce seedlings. The leggy seedlings at left were grown on a windowsill, with poor light. At right, the vibrant seedlings were grown under indoor lights. Stout, bushy and healthy. Marion Owen photo. 2 Attachments     The proof’s in the lettuce seedlings. The leggy seedlings at left were grown on a windowsill, with poor light. At right, the vibrant seedlings were grown under indoor lights. Stout, bushy and healthy.

KODIAK — In last week’s column I touched on some basics of seed starting, my annual attempt to encourage more people to give it a try.

Yes, you can do this!

After attempting to unravel the mysteries of soil-less soil, containers and seeds, I took a brain break by going for a walk with a friend. My brain though, was not taking a break.

“No matter how hard I try to describe it in Reader’s Digest terms,” I groaned, “starting seeds always sounds so complicated.”

“Well,” my friend replied, “I suppose no matter how well you put it, there will always be people who’ll buy their seedlings at the nursery. After all, there’s no fuss. Someone else does the work for you.”

I understand no fuss. I purchase seeds online and through local sources. I also enjoy the luxury of buying read-to-transplant seedlings.

Still, starting your own vegetables, flowers and herbs means you enjoy a different kind of luxury: you get to choose from a greater variety of seeds, and you can start them on your schedule, not someone else’s.

While there are more rewards I could list, I also know that starting seedlings from scratch isn’t for everyone. Just like making bread isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For me, I love watching things grow. (I had an ant farm when I was a kid).

And, I also enjoy growing my favorite kales, new spotted lettuces and a sweet pea from England that promises a heavenly fragrance – all varieties that local stores may or may not carry this year, or have them available when I’m ready to plant. 

Still with me? Let’s take a look at what seeds need in the way of moisture, light, air and fertilizer. 

 

MOISTURE: IT’S A BALANCING ACT

Like Goldilocks and her porridge, plants don’t like it too wet or too dry. Everything in moderation. Seeds need to be constantly moist in order to germinate. But don’t let the growing mix dry out or remain soggy. After sowing your seeds on the damp growing mix, cap your container with a clear cover to slow evaporation. Important: Check every day for signs of germination and remove the cover as soon as a sprout emerges. That way the air can circulate around the seedlings. Water with a fine spray of warm water or from the bottom. 

 

LET THERE BE LIGHT 

Plants vary widely in how much light they need to thrive. Lack of light is probably the number one reason people get discouraged. Why? Because seedlings grown in weak light will stretch and will develop weak stems and a pale color. Seedlings need 14 to 16 hours of light from the moment they germinate. They also need at least 8 hours of darkness to process their food and grow.

I don’t recommend growing seedlings on a windowsill, where light levels are poor and directional. Plants growing on windowsills st-r-e-t-ch toward the light and end up spindly and weak. If windowsills are your only option though, rotate the containers daily so they even out. It also helps to provide additional light or at least a reflector to bounce light back onto the seedlings.

I prefer to grow seedlings under lights. Question is, LED, Fluorescent or Incandescent?

LED grow lights are especially good because they give off very little heat. They also use half the electricity, last 5x longer than fluorescent bulbs, are mercury-free, and won’t shatter like glass. Regular incandescent bulbs are not used for indoor growing because they give off too much heat and can burn tender foliage.

Either way, as your plants grow, keep them as close to the light as possible, within about 2 - 4 inches. As the seedlings grow, move the light fixtures up, or move the floor down.  Adding artificial light can also help keep seedlings warm. 

 

THINNING IS BEAUTIFUL

When your seedlings put out their first “true” leaves, they’re telling you they need more space to grow. Time to transplant them to the next size container, be it a “6-pack”, 4-inch pot, or yogurt cup. Hold the seedling by its leaves, not the delicate stem.

With a butter knife, pencil, spoon or fork, gently slide it down around the seedling root and lift up. Place it into a pre-moistened container, slightly deeper than they were in their flats. Firm soil around the seedlings and water immediately.

 

GET ME SOME AIR!

At this point it’s a good idea to place a fan on your plants. This will make their stems sturdier, preparing them for the great outdoors. Good air circulation also keeps mold and mildew at bay. 

After transplanting, fertilize once a week with a weak organic fertilizer. Here’s where I bring a little of the outdoors inside. I take a handful of finished compost and kelp and stir it into a bucket of water. Every day I give it a stir and after a week or so I use the liquid to feed my seedlings.

If you follow the suggestions I’ve outlined in recent columns, your seed starting should be trouble free. Sometimes though, problems do crop up, pardon the pun. If aphids appear for example, blast them with water or spray them with insecticidal soap. As for “damping off” a fungal disease that attacks the plant at the soil line, install a fan to provide good air flow around your seedlings. Dead air means danger.

Oh, one more thing about water: your seedlings don’t come equipped with Xtratufs, so don’t over-water.

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.

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