Posted on January 18th, 2015 at 7:04 AM by Newark Ohio Garden Club

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Posted on April 28th, 2013 at 9:14 AM by Newark Ohio Garden Club

Happy planting
Wow, that seems like a lot of work when I write it all out. But it’s not really! Watching my garden plants grow from tiny seeds is a thrill every year. I love trying new things each spring and learning from my successes and failures. I hope these tips get you well on your way to learning what works best for you. Happy gardening!

It’s possible to have a fine vegetable garden by buying young plants. But you will have a much wider range of possibilities if you start your own plants from seeds indoors.

Not only is it much cheaper, but you can buy seeds for many more varieties than you will find for sale as plants. That will allow you to experiment with more different flavors, shapes and colors, and to harvest your favorite edibles over a longer period by planting varieties that mature at different times.

Why is it necessary to start plants before it’s warm outdoors? Well, for some species, it’s not (see this article on direct-sowing seeds).

But many of our favorite flowers and vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, squash and beans, evolved in places such as Central America and Mexico where they had many more hours of sunlight in their growing season that they can get in most of the United States. Their seeds will not sprout in  soil that is still cold in spring and the fruits need more sun to ripen than is available in the waning days of autumn.

If you were to sow tomato seeds in the ground outdoors in May in New England, Oklahoma or Minnesota, the plants would take so long to grow that the first frost in October would likely kill them before you got a single ripe tomato.

Even for crops that don’t come from near the equator, starting seeds indoors gives plants a head start that brings earlier harvests and greater yield.

The same is true for many of our favorite annual flowers. If you start them indoors, they can spend more time in your garden flowering instead of getting mature enough to flower. Even many perennials benefit from a good head start indoors.

For your first experience of starting seeds, it’s wise not to take on too much. Start a couple of dozen plants in three or four varieties while you learn how it all works.

Different plants have different needs, so consult the seed packet to find out how many weeks each variety will take to get ready indoors before your last frost date.

Many vegetable seed packets state a number of days to maturity, such as “65 days” or “80 days.” Make sure you know whether that means days from sowing the seed or days from transplanting outdoors; it varies from vegetable to vegetable.

Starting seeds is not complicated or difficult, if you understand the process. The basic ingredients are a proper growing medium, containers, light, warmth, water and attention.

Growing medium. Seedlings are very delicate. For the best chance of success, start them in a fresh, sterile seed-starting mix that is light and fluffy to hold just enough moisture. If the growing medium is too wet or not sterile, disease can strike. If it is too heavy or sticky, fine new roots won’t be able to push through it.

You can use bagged seed-starting mix, or buy compressed pellets of peat or coir (coconut husk fibers) that expand when wet. Since seeds contain the nutrients the seedlings will need, fertilizer isn’t important in your seed-starting mix.

Containers. Anything that will hold the growing medium will work. You can use cell-packs or pots from last year’s annuals, yogurt cups or other found containers. But you must clean them and sterilize them in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Make sure they have good drainage holes so excess water can drain away. And get a shallow waterproof tray that will hold them.

There’s no point in using containers more than 3 to 4 inches across, since you will be transplanting the young plants to the garden (or container garden).

Another alternative is pots that break down in the soil. You can plant them right in the garden and avoid disturbing the young plant’s roots. Some are shaped from compressed peat or coir, or you can make your own from newspaper. Don’t confuse these with biodegradable resin pots; those will break down in a landfill or, eventually, in a compost heap, but you can’t plant them in the garden.

Seed-starting kits are readily available and can be a big help. They usually include an attached set of good-sized containers, a tray to set them on and a clear lid to hold in humidity during the early stages.

Large-scale gardeners often do a two-step: They closely sow seeds in a shallow tray until they sprout, or “germinate.” Then they gently prick the small sprouts out and transplant them to larger containers. This saves germination space if you are starting seeds in large numbers, but it isn’t necessary. A beginner starting a modest number of seeds can germinate them right in the  containers in which they will grow to transplant size.

Light. Seedlings need lots of light or they will be stalky, spindly and feeble. A very sunny, south-facing window may do for a handful of plants if you are not too far north. But most gardeners use artificial lights so they can raise more plants and make sure they get enough rays.

You can buy specially-made plant light setups for anywhere from $80 to $500, depending on complexity and capacity. But many gardeners do just fine with inexpensive T-12 or T-8 fluorescent shop lights from the home improvement store.

To provide a wider spectrum of light, use one cool-white tube and one red-light tube in a two-tube fixture. Newer-fangled T-5 tubes deliver more light from a single tube but are more expensive and require a special fixture.

The crucial thing is to rig the light fixture so you can raise it. You must keep the lights just 3 to 4 inches above the plants as they grow. That’s why incandescent light bulbs won’t work; if they are close enough to give a plant a useful amount of light, their heat will destroy it. Fluorescent bulbs give more light but stay cool.

Most often, a shop light is hung from open-link chains with S-hooks. As the plants grow, the light can be lifted link by link so it stays right above the plants. You can hang the light from a basement ceiling, from a home-made lumber frame or even under a table, with the plants on the floor.

A lamp timer will take over the chore of turning the lights on and off so the plants get 16 to 18 hours of light every day and a good rest at night.

Warmth. Seed-starting happens in two stages: germination and growing. Germination is the sprouting stage, when the embryo of the plant emerges from the seed. You won’t need light at this stage, but you will need gentle warmth (not harsh heat). Provide it by setting the containers on top of a refrigerator or dryer; by propping them a few inches above (not on) a radiator; or by using special heating mats sold for the purpose.

Once you see green sprouts about half an inch tall, you will move your plants under the lights in a cooler environment–about comfortable room temperature, between 60 and 70 degrees. A cold garage won’t do; neither will a broiling furnace room.

Water. Plants consist mostly of water and they need it for the photosynthesis that gives them energy to grow.

Sow the seeds in moistened mix. Cover the containers to hold in humidity while the seeds germinate–with the cover from your kit, or with a loosely fastened plastic bag. Once they sprout, uncover the containers and water them from the bottom, by pouring water into the tray. Never water the seed-starting mix from the top; that courts disease (especially a fungus disease called “damping off”) and may dislodge or damage the sprouts. Make sure air circulates freely so humidity isn’t trapped around plants.   

So-called “self watering” seed-starting kits are helpful in keeping the water supply steady. In these arrangements, the containers sit on a fiber mat that wicks just enough moisture from a reservoir. These kits aren’t magic, though; you still have to keep that reservoir filled with water.

Attention. This is the secret ingredient to successful seed-starting. You’ll need to check daily: To see if the seeds have sprouted; to remove the cover when it’s time and move the sprouts under lights; to make sure they stay  properly moist; to keep a self-watering reservoir full; to raise the lights so they stay just the right distance above the plants; and to make sure the lights and timer haven’t malfunctioned. If you are starting a few seeds on the windowsill, turn the plants every day so they don’t bend toward the light.          

As you plan your seed starting, factor in your convenience and habits. Will you really remember to check seeds in the basement daily? It might be wiser to start seeds in the guest room or kitchen where they will be handier, even if you have space for fewer seedlings.

As your seedlings grow, watch the weather. Although a few crops can go outside earlier (read the seed packet), most should stay indoors until after the last frost date for your area has passed and your soil has warmed. If your area is having a cold spring, hold off.

Gardeners are always eager, but many a carefully nurtured tomato seedling has been killed by a May frost or simply slowed down by cold soil. Protect your investment of time and attention by planting later rather than earlier.

Then introduce your plants to the outdoors gradually, a process called “hardening off.” For a few hours one fine spring day, then a few hours more the next, give your plants a taste of the outdoors, but bring them in at night. After a week or so, they will have acclimated to the outdoors and will be ready to transplant.


Posted on April 21st, 2013 at 9:09 AM by Newark Ohio Garden Club

Seeds vary widely in size. I like to use tweezers to place them exactly where I want them. In general, seeds should be planted approximately four times deeper than their diameter. Some seeds need light to germinate and should be scattered just on the surface of the soil. Again, read those packets!

I usually put two seeds into each hole. I use three if I think the germination rate will be low. You can test your germination rate by placing ten seeds between layers of moist paper towels in putting them in a ziploc bag in a warm place. This is a good idea if you have saved the seeds yourself or they are several years old. Do this 2-3 weeks before you want to actually start your seeds.

As you’re planting, take good notes! Make a planting diagram and jot down how many days it takes each type of seed to germinate. Some germination times are given as huge ranges (5-20 days). The happier the seed is (warm and wet), the speedier germination may be.

If you are using individual pots, mark them with labels or masking tape, unless you know for sure that you will recognize what the leaves of your young plants will look like. There’s nothing worse than getting your plants mixed up. This is especially important if you are starting different varieties of the same crop! Free plant stakes can be made simply by cutting up a plastic yogurt tub. Store your leftover seeds in a ziploc bag or glass jar in the refrigerator.

Now that the seeds are snug in their beds, cover them to retain moisture and put them in a warm place. A temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) is ideal, but in March our house is nowhere near 70 degrees! I like to set my mini-greenhouse on a heating pad (a wet/dry safe heating pad set on low) to maintain a more constant temperature, since our thermostat drops to 54 degrees (12 Celsius) at night. Some people recommend putting the seed tray on top of the refrigerator. If your house is more temperate, the heat source is unnecessary. I have often started seeds without a heat source, but peppers and eggplants seem especially fussy about the temperature.

What happens after the seeds sprout?
Once the seeds have germinated (keep them moist!), they’ll need light, nutrients and air. Give them some ventilation and move them to a very sunny window, supplemented with artificial light. There is no need to buy an expensive grow light or full spectrum light. For these purposes, a basic 48″ fluorescent shop light is all you need.

Tip: The type I own has two tubular bulbs per light; they’re available at home improvement stores for less than $20. The critical thing is to hang them in such a way that they can be raised as the plants grow; I use a link-type chain that can be doubled-up on itself to different lengths.

As your plants grow, keep the light about 6″ from their tops. If the light is too far away, the plants will grow spindly as they stretch for it. This can be rather tricky if you are starting different types of seeds at the same time, because they will grow at varied rates. You can lift the shorter ones with shoeboxes or phonebooks to alleviate this difficulty. Once all the seeds in your tray have germinated, remove the cover completely. Too much humidity at this stage can encourage mildew and harm the seedlings.

As you water, fertilize with a weak solution of water-soluble all-purpose fertilizer. I make mine about one-quarter the strength called for. Watch out for crystallized salts forming on your soil surface — that’s a sign you’re over-fertilizing and need to cut back. Turn the lights off for your plants at night (they need a dark cycle to grow properly) but leave the heat on (temperature fluctuations can stunt them).

What about transplanting?
When the seedlings first sprout, they will usually have a pair of first leaves that look nothing like the true leaves that come later. (Many crops are dicots, but not all.) Watch closely, and soon after they have two sets of true leaves, it’s time to move the teenage seedlings into their first real apartment. Water your seedlings thoroughly an hour or two ahead of time, and then, working carefully and quickly, remove each seedling into its own pot.

At this point I generally use an all-purpose potting soil. Scooping them up from below, try your best to get all their little roots, and handle their tops as little as possible, and always by the leaves, rather than the stem. A damaged leaf can be replaced; a damaged stem often dooms a plant at this stage.

Depending on how long your plants will be living inside, you may perform only one transplant, or you may need two. For my tomatoes, I’ll move them into 4-inch plastic nursery pots first, then into gallon-sized pots before they go outside. Everything else gets one transplant, then into the garden.

Once your seedlings are thriving, it’s tempting to treat them a bit too carelessly. Being started inside in a safe environment, they can’t stand the shock of an immediate change in their conditions. Basically, they are weak, coddled little things. Expose them gradually to the out-of-doors by setting them outside on nice days for a few hours, being sure to bring them inside at night and making sure they don’t get sunburned or blown over. Some gardeners like to have a fan blow on their indoor starts, saying it strengthens the stems to withstand windy outdoor conditions. I can’t vouch for that, but I do think it helps prevent mildew.

Happy planting
Wow, that seems like a lot of work when I write it all out. But it’s not really! Watching my garden plants grow from tiny seeds is a thrill every year. I love trying new things each spring and learning from my successes and failures. I hope these tips get you well on your way to learning what works best for you. Happy gardening!

Seeds vary widely in size. I like to use tweezers to place them exactly where I want them. In general, seeds should be planted approximately four times deeper than their diameter. Some seeds need light to germinate and should be scattered just on the surface of the soil. Again, read those packets!

I usually put two seeds into each hole. I use three if I think the germination rate will be low. You can test your germination rate by placing ten seeds between layers of moist paper towels in putting them in a ziploc bag in a warm place. This is a good idea if you have saved the seeds yourself or they are several years old. Do this 2-3 weeks before you want to actually start your seeds.

Posted on April 14th, 2013 at 9:06 AM by Newark Ohio Garden Club

How do I start plants from seed?
The two most important factors for seed germination are temperature and humidity. The seed contains all the nutrients the plant needs to germinate, so it doesn’t need fertilizer or fertile soil.

Note: Fertilizer may actually prevent some seeds from sprouting. Generally, I avoid fertilizing until plants have grown their first set of “true leaves”, which look different than the first pair that emerges.

To start my seeds, I used the bio-dome from Park Seeds, a device that looks like a plastic greenhouse dome with a styrofoam tray. The tray holds little soil-less planting plugs called bio-sponges. Each plug has a hole in it for the seeds. I don’t normally advocate one product over another, but I really like these.

      Seeds sprout best in a light soil; don’t use potting soil or garden dirt at this first stage! You can buy seed   starting mix or make your own from peat moss, sand, and compost.



Note: Take care if using vermiculite; it can be a respiratory hazard. I prefer the little soil-less planting plugs because they’re mess free and they pop out easily for transplanting, doing minimal damage to the roots, but other methods work fine too.

Any device that keeps the environment moist and fairly warm will work. You can cover trays of soil with saran wrap or a dry-cleaning bag — poke plastic forks into the soil to hold the plastic layer up off the growing sprouts. Commercial peat pots, yogurt cups or milk cartons (poke drainage holes in the bottoms) or pots made from newspapers (avoid colored ink) all work fine, too.

Set your pots in a tray, tub or rimmed cookie sheet so you can water from the bottom, letting the moisture soak up through the soil. This helps keep the moisture level constant and prevents dislodging seeds with a fountain of water. Do not let the soil dry out! Little tiny seedling rootlets need constant moisture.

Posted on April 5th, 2013 at 3:42 PM by Newark Ohio Garden Club

In some parts of the U.S., vegetable and flower seeds can be successfully planted directly into the garden. But in many areas, the growing season is too short to allow this.

Cool spring soil temperatures and cold weather can prevent seeds from germinating or kill young seedlings. If you wait until the weather warms, the plants get off to a late start only to be zapped by fall’s first frost; they don’t get a chance to bear a full crop or to put on a full floral display.

There are three solutions for home gardeners:

  • Buy all of your vegetables and flowers as plant starts, once the weather warms.
  • Extend the growing season outside with coldframes and rowcovers.
  • Start your own seeds inside while the wintry weather lingers.

The first choice is best for beginning gardeners who are working on a small scale. The second option is nice for committed gardeners who want to test the limits. Starting from seed, however, is easy, is cheaper per plant and allows a greater variety of choice among both ornamentals and crops than buying nursery plants.

I’m eager each (early) Spring to get my seeds going. On March 1st, I began seven types of flowers and my basil seeds. (As of March 5th, the basil has sprouted, as have a couple of the flowers.) In two weeks, I’ll start tomatoes and a few others, and the squash, cucumbers and more flowers will follow. How do I do it, and how do I know when to start? Here are my tips:

When should I start my seeds?
In order to decide when to sow your seeds, you need to find the average last frost date for your region.

I start my tomato plants six or seven weeks before this date. Slow-to-germinate flowers get an eight-week head start. Squashes and cucumbers don’t transplant especially well, but I germinate them inside to protect them from marauding slugs. I move them outside two weeks later before they’ve developed much of a root system.

What should I plant indoors?
To determine what to plant indoors, read your seed packets. Many will list instructions for both inside and outdoor seed sowing. Knowing which to do will depend on your climate. With flowers, I often do both. I’ll start a limited number indoors for “insurance” and then sow the remainder of the packet directly in the garden once true Spring arrives.

Some crops should not be started indoors because they don’t transplant well or because they need an impractical amount of room. I would not recommend starting the following inside:

  • Root, tuber or bulb crops (beets, radishes, turnips, onions, potatoes, carrots, etc.)
  • Leafy greens (lettuces, spinach, cabbage, chards)

These cool season plants can withstand planting directly outside even before the weather fully warms. Likewise, things you are going to plant in large numbers should wait until they can be sown into the garden soil. The following are usually grown in sizable quantities:

  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Beans

If you are worried about your short growing season for crops like corn, look for varieties that have a short days-to-maturity period.

Tomatoes and peppers, broccoli, eggplants, cauliflower, melons and squashes can all be started successfully indoors. Herbs and flowers, too, benefit from the controlled environment of indoor seed starting. Let’s get started!