A seed is the ultimate beginning. It is an act of faith to expect something so small and dry to grow when buried in soil. Contemplating this miracle is what keeps many die-hard gardeners sane as they await spring.
Some gardeners just can't wait: They get a head start on spring by starting seeds indoors.
There are advantages to indoor planting.
For starters, vigorous transplants usually produce an earlier bloom and harvest. You can grow unusual or rare varieties unavailable as seedlings at garden centers. And with the cost of plants increasing, you save money by starting your own.
If you grow your own, transplants will probably be disease-free.
Raising healthy plants from seeds takes planning and ideal conditions. Timing is vital.
"Six weeks is normal seed time," said Clyde Lester, horticultural consultant and retired director of the University of Georgia Extension office in Richmond County. "You always want to put the seed of your transplant in the pot six weeks before you put them outside."
Frost-hardy plants should be planted outside as soon as possible. Other plants should be moved outside the second week of April. Start seeds by Feb. 26 for transplanting then.
If seeded too early, plants will outgrow their containers before it is time to plant them outside. Those started too late will be small and require pampering to survive in the garden.
Almost any type of small container will be sufficient, including yogurt containers, foam cups, take-out containers and seed flats. Mr. Lester recommends peat pots. Seedlings grown in peat pots require no repotting because they can be planted in the cups. For a bonus, the peat pot feeds the young plant as it degrades.
You'll need to punch a hole in the bottom of yogurt containers or cups to ensure proper drainage.
Use a commercial seed-starting mix because they are lightweight, sterile and drain well. You can mix your own by combining one part each of vermiculite, perlite and sphagnum peat moss or potting soil.
The planting medium consists of four parts soil to one part water. Mix in a separate container until it is evenly moist, not soggy. Because the soil is lightweight, it will float away if it is mixed in the planting container, Mr. Lester said.
Check the seed pack to find out how deep to plant the seeds. Usually, you sow a seed at a depth two to three times its thickness. Tiny seeds or those needing light to germinate should be surface-sown by pressing them into the medium surface.
Mr. Lester recommends sowing two seeds per pot and thinning, or pinching off, the weaker of the two after they sprout. Attempting to separate seedlings can damage tender roots, which may be entangled.
Transplants grow best under fluorescent or grow lights. Two 48-inch bulbs can light up to 50 seedlings. Lights should be kept an inch from plant tops. Manipulate the distance by hanging the bulbs on adjustable chains or by placing plants on 2-by-4-inch boards that can be removed to lower the plants as they grow. If no lights are available, position the transplant in a bright south window.
Mr. Lester recommends use of a light timer. Once seeds germinate, they will require 14 hours of light each day.
"The average person just can't remember to cut that thing on and off," said Mr. Lester. "The timer will do that for you, and they are very inexpensive."
Room temperature, 65 to 75 degrees, is perfect for germinating and growing transplants.
Water them every other day. The soil should be moist at all times, but avoid over-watering.
Once the seed forms its first leaves, it should be fertilized once a week with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer such as Peter's or Miracle-Gro.
Transplants will need to be hardened off outside before permanent planting. Put them outside for six to eight hours a day for a few days to let them adjust.
The best vegetables to seed indoors for the spring garden are cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Easy starts for summer gardens include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and eggplant.
Reach Valerie Rowell at (706) 823-3351 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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