Originally created 01/25/02

Seeds renew gardener's soul



Starting seeds indoors can satisfy a gardener's addiction during the winter.

Evans resident Betty Crowther can hold back growing something only until January, when she sows her first seeds indoors. She started off four years ago with just a tray of seeds sprouting in front of a sunny window. Since then, her husband, Michael, has built her a propagating shelf with fluorescent lights and a warming mat.

Mrs. Crowther starts with seeds or seedlings from area nurseries. She also orders unusual or rare seed varieties through catalogs. She has starts in all stages of development, from recently sown to hardening off. Her plants include Achillea, zinnia, cascading petunias, salvia, ageratum, coleus, pincushion flowers, bachelor's button and an uncommon variety of black-eyed Susan.

Starting seeds indoors has advantages: strong transplants usually produce an earlier bloom and harvest; it's cheaper to start plants from seeds; and you can ensure that the transplants are healthy.

The seeds' germination time will be listed on the pack along with other sowing instructions. On average, seeds should be sowed six weeks before you put them outside.

Frost-hardy plants should be placed outside as soon as possible. Others should be moved outside the second week of April, said Clyde Lester, horticultural consultant and retired director of the University of Georgia Extension office in Richmond County.

Mrs. Crowther has a trick to beat the frost. "I usually start early seeds of things I am going to put in containers," Mrs. Crowther said. "If they forecast a frost, I can move them to the screened porch or into the garage. So that way I have a jump-start on my container plants. Once it gets nearer to the last frost date, then I do the ones that are going into the ground."

Almost any type of small container will do. You can purchase plastic flats like Mrs. Crowther's, or peat pots, or you can use household items such as egg cartons, yogurt containers, waxed paper cups or formed newspaper cups. Just make sure they have a drain hole in the bottom.

Use a commercial seed-starting soil mix. These mixes are lightweight, sterile, and drain well but retain moisture. Mrs. Crowther uses a fine, dust-like mix for fine seeds or regular potting soil for larger seeds, such as sweet peas.

In a separate container, mix the medium with warm water until it is moist, not soggy. The medium should hold its shape but not drip, Mrs. Crowther said.

Seeds should be planted at the depth listed on the pack. Mrs. Crowther uses a paintbrush to push seeds into holes. Other gardeners use fingers or tweezers, she said.

Fine seeds are more difficult to deal with. Mrs. Crowther puts these in an empty seasoning shaker with a teaspoon of sand and sprinkles them on the medium surface before pressing them in.

Transplants grow best under fluorescent lights, or "grow lights." Incandescent bulbs get too hot and can burn fragile seedlings. Lights should stay a few inches from plant tops and should be adjusted as the plants grow. This can be done by putting lights on adjustable chains or placing 1-inch blocks under the plants that can be removed as they grow. If no lights are available, place transplants in a sunny window.

Once seeds germinate, they require 14 hours of light a day. Mrs. Crowther uses a timer. A room temperature of 65 to 75 degrees is perfect for germinating and growing transplants. Many seeds germinate better if you use bottom heat, such as that from a water-resistant heating mat.

Seeds and seedlings need to be kept moist but not soggy. Mrs. Crowther recommends misting because it is gentle on delicate seedlings and will not wash seeds away.

"If they dry out they will die," Mrs. Crowther said. "So you need to mist them fairly frequently."

Once a plant develops its "true leaves" (the third and fourth leaves formed), you can begin feeding it by adding a water-soluble fertilizer in the misting water.

Once plants look sturdy, Mrs. Crowther begins to "harden them off" outside. She starts by putting them on the screened porch for an hour. The next day it's two hours, and so on, until they can stay on the porch. She then moves them in the same manner to the deck.

Mrs. Crowther was inspired to start her own seeds four years ago at a seed propagating seminar at Green Thumb West Nursery on Davis Road in Martinez. The seminar will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday. Call 863-0212.

GARDENING SEMINAR

WHAT: Success With Seeds and Propagation

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Green Thumb West, 110 Davis Road, Martinez

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: (706) 863-0212

Reach Valerie Rowell at (803) 279-6895 or valmac007@hotmail.com.