It’s 8 days before the official beginning of spring and now is the time to start thinking about your garden, whether it’s a new garden or an existing site. Here in Detroit, we are expecting 6 consecutive days of 60+ degrees and I for one couldn’t be happier, since I can now start to plan in earnest. On Thursday, March 8th, my sister Jenni and I went to the Seed Distribution Day put on by the fabulous people behind Detroit’s urban gardening movement, Garden Resource Program. We belong to Cluster One (there are 8 in total) and we have most of our meetings at Davison Elementary School. This year I got a wider variety of seeds as I was looking not only for the tried and true but a few new vegetables that I could try. You know, you’ve got to keep trying new things just to keep the gardening experience fresh and challenging. So this year I picked up:
- “Cherry Belle” Radish
- “Harris Model” Parsnip
- Carrots (unknown variety)
- “Giant Delicious” Tomato
- “Marketmore” Cucumber
- “Straight 8” Cucumber
- “Black” Zucchini
- “Straightneck” Squash
- “Cascadia” Snap Peas
- “Kentucky Wonder” Pole Beans
- “Provider” Bush Bean
- Serrano Chile
- GRP “All Greens Mix”
- “Green Wave” Mustard Greens
- Iceberg Lettuce
- “Southern Giant Curled” India Mustard Greens
- GRP “Lettuce Mix”
- “Sweet Thai” Thai Basil
- “Santo” Cilantro
- “Jewel Mix” Nasturtium
- “Brocade Mix” Marigold
- “Sensation Mix” Cosmos
What’s different this year is that there are several plants that were picked because they work well in containers. I definitely plan on doing more container gardening this year. The plan is to plant more quick-to-harvest vegetables like peas, lettuces, carrots and radishes in their own bed (containers) so that I can have a better rotation of some of my long-term crops and more room for them as well.
The Beginning: March To-Do List
Like most successful gardeners, I believe that it is important to get off to a great start. So, I like to create a to-do list just so I can get my bearings and do things in an order that makes sense and makes my life a lot easier. After all, I am not getting any younger and though I enjoy the heck out of gardening, I know I will enjoy it even more when I create a plan and can follow it. Living in Zone 6, I want to put the right seeds and plants at the most optimum time to ensure their growth and productive yields. Some of the cold-weather plants I can start with are:
- “The Dreaded” Cauliflower (not likely to happen…I HATE Cauliflower!)
If these plants are at the large seedling or “set” stage it would be correct to move them outdoors to a cold frame or a protected spot. To find out more about cold frames click here
The seeds listed below would be ideal to start “indoors under lights”…
- Brussels Sprouts
- Annual and Perennial Flowers (Alyssum, Cosmos, Marigolds, Zinnias, Shasta Daisies, Columbines and Hollyhocks)
As soon as the garden soil is workable it would be time to plant…
- Sweet Peas
- Poppies and other flowers like…Rocket Larkspur, Mignonette
And if you are fortunate not to have snow on the ground, now would be the ideal time for you to top-dress your lawn with compost, fill in the low spots and reseed.
Simple Instructions for Seed Starting Success
It would be hard to find a gardener that hasn’t at least tried to grow his or her garden from seed. It can be pretty frustrating when the seeds don’t germinate but when they come up as planned you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve grown your garden organically right from the very start.
So how do you get off to a fine start? First, calculate when to sow your seeds and then make a seed-starting chart. Print it out and then fill in the blanks. You will then have a planting plan that you could use all season. Actually, the entire process can be done online (excel spreadsheet). After you have your plan you may begin by doing the following…
- Choose a fine medium.
For healthy seedlings, you’ve got to give them a loose, well-drained medium (seed-starting mix) composed of very fine particles. You can buy a seed-starting mix at your local garden center—or make your own. There are several good recipes for a quality seed-starting mix. A standard recipe calls for blending equal parts of:
Add ¼ teaspoon of lime to each gallon of mix to neutralize the acidity of peat.
Don’t use potting soil—often it’s too rich and doesn’t drain well enough for seedlings. Nor should you use just compost. I tried it last year and the results were not very satisfying. It drained a little too well and was also lacking some essential nutrients that would have helped the plants grow quicker and stronger.
- Assemble your containers
Many gardeners start their seeds in leftover plastic “six packs” from the garden center, empty milk cartons or Styrofoam cups. I happen to use empty frozen orange juice containers. If you don’t have containers on hand you can buy plastic “cell packs,” individual plastic pots, or sphagnum peat pots. Or make your own pots from newspaper (they will decompose in the soil). Whatever you use, be sure your containers drain well (usually through holes in the bottoms of the containers).
If you are using last year’s containers, you can protect against plant disease by thoroughly cleaning all used containers. Wash them in hot soapy water, and rinse with a diluted solution of household bleach and water. Distilled white vinegar may be used instead of bleach.
Set the pots inside a tray so that you can water your seedlings from the bottom (by adding water to the tray) rather than disturbing them by watering from the top. This will also help to prevent the tops of your soil from developing or growing mold on top of the soil. You would be surprised as to how many plants do not get off to a healthy start when you overlook this part of the process.
You can buy seed starting kits at garden centers, hardware stores or online (seed catalogs).
- Start your seeds!
Moisten your seed-starting mix before you plant your seeds. If you water after you plant the seeds, they can easily float to the edges of the container—not where you want them to be. To moisten the mix, simply pour some (the mix) into a bucket, add warm water, and stir. After about 8 hours (or when the mix has absorbed the water), fill your containers with the moistened mix. If you are using the peat pods and water trays, add warm water to the tray and the pods will moisten and expand. They will be ready for planting after they have expanded 2 to 3 times their original size.
Plant at least two, but no more than three, seeds per container. Plant no more than one seed per pod if you are using pods and water trays. The seed packet will tell you how deep to plant each seed. A good rule of thumb is three times as deep as the seeds smallest diameter. (Some flower seeds (ageratum, alyssum, impatiens, petunias, and snapdragons) require light to sprout—if that’s the case, simply lay the seeds on the surface of the mix, then tamp them in gently with your finger.)
After you’ve planted your seeds, cover the tray loosely with plastic to create a humid environment. At 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, your seeds should sprout just fine without any supplementary heat. If the room temperature is cooler than that, you can keep the seeds warm by setting the tray on top of a heating pad or heating mat made specifically for starting seeds. You may even have to consider placing your young seeds/seedlings near a heat vent.
Established seedlings do not have to stay as warm as germinating seeds. Yu should be able to move them away from heat vents or off the heating pad once they have germinated.
Tomato, zucchini and pumpkin seeds should push their sprouts through the surface of the mix in a few days. Peppers sprout in about a week. And some seeds, such as parsley can take as long as 3 weeks to sprout, so it helps to be patient. I have also found it to be helpful to write on the side of the planter when the seed was started. It helps to keep track so that you will know when you started it and if you need to start over a few times. It is always good to know how old your seedlings are.
Lightly sprinkle milled sphagnum moss, a natural fungicide, over everything to protect against damping-off, a fungicide that rots seeds and seedlings. You may recall, I mentioned having this problem myself. In the case of seeds that need light to germinate, sprinkle the moss first and then drop the seeds onto the moss.
- Keep the lights bright
Check your trays daily. As soon as you see sprouts remove the plastic covers and immediately pop the tray beneath “grow lights.” You can invest in grow lights (which provide “warm” and “cool” light), but many gardeners have good results with standard 4-foot long fluorescent shop lights. Set your seedlings as close to the light as possible—2 or 3 inches away is about right. When seedlings don’t get enough light, they grow long weak stems. As the seedlings grow, raise the lights to maintain the proper distance. And, you shouldn’t worry about turning off the lights at night. Contrary to popular belief, seedlings don’t require a period of darkness. Fluorescent lights are only one-tenth as bright as sunlight, so your seedlings will actually grow better if you leave them on continuously.
Though, I do not use grow lights now, I can see how they would make my seedlings grow better. My seedlings typically look like the ones described above with “the long weak stems.” I put my seedlings in two east-facing windows, where you would think they’d get plenty of sunlight. The problem is that the light from the sun is too weak and inconsistent to be as effective as the fluorescents. Fluorescents provide a steady source of high-intensity light. I have too many short days with restricted sunlight and seedlings generally require 12 to 18 hours of light a day.
I do replant them in bigger deeper containers to compensate for their thin stems, but I have to concede that growing them to be better prepared and stronger for the rigors of outdoor growth means that they need a better start.
- Feed and water
Your seedlings will need a steady supply of water, but the soil shouldn’t be constantly wet (something I finally learned last year). The best method is to keep the containers inside a tray, water from the bottom, and allow the soil inside the containers to “wick up” the water.
If your growing medium contains only vermiculite and peat (as many seed-starting mixes do), you’ll also need to feed your seedlings. A mistake I made a few years ago…lol! When the seedlings get their first “true” leaves (not the tiny ones that first appear, but the two that follow), mix up a fish emulsion solution one-quarter to one-half the recommended strength and add it to the seedlings water every other week. As the plants grow bigger, gradually increase the strength of the mixture.
- Give them space
Those well-watered, well-fed, and well-fanned seedlings will soon need more roof space. Shortly after the second set of true leaves appears take a deep breath and thin your seedlings (if you did not use the pod and tray model) to one per pot. Use small scissors to clip off the weaker plants at the soil line, leaving only the stockiest plant.
Next carefully “pot up” the survivors into larger 3-or 4-inch pots. Squeeze the sides of the smaller containers all around, turn them upside down, and the plants should come out easily—soil and all. Immediately set them into the larger containers and fill with a mixture of 2 parts potting soil and 1 part of your own compost that you have also screened.
(Remember, if you started your seeds in peat pods or homemade newspaper pots, you can plant both the seedling and its pot in the larger container, the pot will eventually decompose.)
Plant tomatoes deep in the new container to encourage them to develop a larger root system to support these often top-heavy plants. With most other plants, the soil level in the new pot should be about the same as in the smaller container. After you’ve finished repotting, water the plants well and set them back under the lights.
Lettuce, melons and cucumbers are pretty finicky about being transplanted and should go directly into the ground. In addition, when starting these particular fussy plants add two parts well-aged, screened compost to the planting mix to ensure that they get off to a fine start.
Another little trick (one that I am hearing about for the very first time) is to lightly ruffle your seedlings once or twice a day with your hand or a small piece of cardboard. This will help them to grow stock and strong. Using a small fan set to a continuous steady breeze is good too.
About a week or two before you plan to transplant your seedlings to the garden, begin taking them outdoors to a protected place, such as inside a cold frame or near a wall, for increasing lengths of time on mild days. This will help them adjust to the conditions outside—a process known as hardening off. Start with just a couple of hours each day, work up to a full day, and then leave them out overnight.
When you finally transplant the seedlings to the garden, be careful not to disturb their roots. Gently pop them out of their containers, keeping as much soil attached to their roots as possible. Again, plant tomatoes deeply, but set other plants at about the same depth as they were in their pots (or just slightly deeper).
This should help anybody that is planning on starting his or her seeds indoors. More of this information can be found in its original form on the following links:
Gardener’s To-Do List for March — Published on Organic Gardening (http://www.organicgardening.com)
It’s not too late to join the Garden Resource Program Collaborative and the Greening of Detroit. Visit them online at www.detroitagriculture.net or call Lindsay Pielack at 313-285-2300
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