For today’s column, I want you to think like a seedling, much like I tell my photography students to think like a camera. First, let’s talk a little about how life can seem overly complicated and busy, even in the middle of an Alaskan winter, and then I’ll share how it relates to seed-starting.
Sometimes it feels like we try to squeeze as many tasks as possible into a limited span of time and, by doing so, we’ve agreed to participate in an invisible race. Countless studies confirm that all this hurrying and multi-tasking diminishes our quality of life. I don’t need to tell you this. You can feel it when we lose our car keys, spill coffee and forget where we planted the daffodil bulbs. Or if we planted them at all.
“There is no joy in work which is hurried, which is done when we are at the mercy of pressures from outside, because such work is compulsive,” says teacher and scholar Eknath Easwaran (www.easwaran.org). “All too often hurry clouds judgment,” Easwaran said in his book, “Words to Live By.”
“More and more, to save time, a person tends to think in terms of pat solutions and to take shortcuts and give uninspired performances,” he said.
While we might compromise with an uninspired performance, plants would never do such a thing. It’s not their nature. A germinating lettuce seed will give its all to grow to be a cluster of vibrant green leaves and a pansy seed only knows its true destiny to become a flower.
On the other hand, a plant fails to do its best when conditions such as drought, frost or excessive heat force it to do otherwise. Take the life of a seedling. There’s no more critical time in a plant’s life then when it’s a youngster. The very moment a seed germinates, it needs extra attention, just like a newborn child or a puppy. Okay then: How well you care for your seedling will determine, for the most part, how well the plant performs in adulthood.
So whether you are an experienced seed starter getting a jump on the growing season or attempting it for the first time (bravo!) let’s go through the basics of starting seedlings indoors by thinking like a seedling and what it needs to get a healthy start in life.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LIGHT
Lack of adequate light causes pale, leggy and weak seedlings, and it’s the Number One reason why seedlings die after transplanting outside. Seedlings require more light than mature plants (just like teenagers who can empty a refrigerator), which means 14 to 16 hours a day. Simplify the process: Get a timer.
Windowsills you say, are handy ledges for raising plants, but direct sun and cold air flowing down a glass windowpane can harm seedlings. If you must use windowsills, supplement the light with reflectors and rotate plants every two days.
The ideal setup is to grow your seedlings under fluorescent lights. You don’t need to buy expensive ‘grow lights.’ As the seedlings mature, adjust the eight of the lights so they remain 3 to 4 inches above the tops of the seedlings.
KEEP SOIL DAMP, NOT SWIMMING
Soil should be moist like a damp sponge, not soggy. And never let it dry out. Which means you need to check your seedlings daily. Mist them often and use room temperature water. When the seedlings put out more roots and leaves, start watering them from the bottom to encourage roots to ‘reach for it.’
As for fertilizer, wait to feed seedlings until they develop their second set of leaves, called true leaves. Use a mild dilution and stay away from chemical-based, junk food products like Miracle-Gro.
WHAT TEMP IS BEST?
In the beginning, seedlings thrive in a range of 65 to 75 degrees F. But plants like lettuce, parsley, kale and cabbage though, prefer cooler temperatures once they reach two to three inches in height.
PLANTS BREATHE, TOO
Remember your early science lessons: Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen while we do the opposite. (See how much we depend on plants?) Poor air circulation not only stunts growth, it can cause damping-off (when seedlings keel over at the soil line) and encourage pests like gnats and aphids. The solution: Set up a small fan. This does wonders to exercise plant stems which prepares them for outdoor breezes. Another way to strengthen seedlings is to lightly brush your seedlings tops with your hand each time you stop by for a visit.
Understanding what seedlings need is the first step toward a successful garden, whether you grow your own seedlings or purchase them as bedding plants. The second step, and something to keep in mind no matter what you are doing is to not be in a hurry.
“It is often said that life in our modern world is so complicated, so busy, and so crowded that just to survive we have to hurry,” says Easwaran who suggests that it is possible to do our work and attend to our duties without being oppressed by time. “When we work free from the bondage of time we do not make mistakes, we do not get tense, and the quality of our living improves.”
Marion’s Kodiak Garden Calendar
Seeds: Make a list, check it twice. Order your seeds soon since favorites run out.
Get your seed starting supplies and tools in order: pots, soil, lights, fan.
Houseplants: As some plants start to lean toward the light turn pots 1/4 turn every few days to prevent bending.
Window box geraniums: Remember, if you or a friend have any growing indoors, now is a good time to take cuttings. Let them heal over by exposing cuttings for 2 days before inserting into damp sand or sandy soil mix.
Got a gardening question? Want to learn how to grow melons in Kodiak? Join the Kodiak Garden Club or the Kodiak Growers Facebook group. To contact Marion: