What’s a gardener to do in the middle of an April snowstorm, besides dream that is. We were not getting very seasonable weather but at least the record-breaking April snow added moisture to the soil.
All the garden centers are now stocked and waiting for us. Just walking through the centers goes a long way to addressing cabin fever. The warmth and earthy smells of the green houses can reduce a lot of stress, at least for me. On a recent visit to a center, a salesperson asked if she could help me find something – “Yes,” I said, “Spring!” I was very tempted to buy some pansies, but even though they can withstand a light frost I didn’t think they would fare well in the forecasted snowstorm. I did however walk out with a couple of packs of seeds – which I started indoors during the storm.
It is not too late to start some seeds, especially since it is quite possible our planting season will be slightly delayed as well. For those of you who plant vegetable seeds for peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, you can start them indoors now. I am starting some annuals for planting in the garden in late May.
You can start seeds in any type of container but using a divided tray may yield best results. Planting a number of seeds in one large container makes the roots grow into each other and you will damage the plants when you try to separate them. Be sure to use sterile containers to avoid any pathogens that might prevent germination or kill off the seedlings. Use a soil-less sterile seed-starting medium and water the soil before you plant the seeds to avoid washing the delicate seeds right out of the soil. Don’t plant the seeds too deep – many only need to be placed on top of the ‘soil’ with just a little soil sprinkled on top to keep the seed from washing away. Keep the potting mix moist during germination – usually one to two weeks – with a spray bottle.
One of the most important considerations for seed starting is light. Not all seeds need light to germinate, in fact some such as bachelor buttons, delphiniums, forget-me-nots, nasturtiums, poppies, sweetpeas and pansies actually need darkness. But once the little seedlings have sprouted they all need light for photosynthesis. Placing them in a sunny window unfortunately will not provide enough light for them to grow and flourish. Ideally, the new seedlings will need 12-16 hours of sunlight a day, which they cannot get in a Minnesota window this time of year. Also the intensity of the sunlight in late April/early May is not sufficient because the sun is still low in the southern sky.
A better way is to grow your new seedlings under shop lights. You do not need to purchase special grow lights; any cool white or combination cool/warm fluorescent lights will do. Hang the lights by chains so that they are 4-5 inches above the sprouts. As the plants grow you can raise the lights by shortening the chains. Use a timer to turn the lights on and off to ensure that they get the needed 12 to 16 hours of light each day.
While your seedlings are growing indoors and all the snow has melted you can start preparing your gardens for planting. The ground must be thawed and warmed before you plant anything other than cold weather crops. One mistake many over-eager gardeners make is planting when the soil is still too cool. This tends to stunt the growth of many plants, especially warm weather vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers; many do not recover from the shock. (It is recommended that you don’t plant melon plants until the ground temperature is 65°!) Tilling or hoeing the soil will help it to warm up faster – and while you are at it you can add compost and pull any weeds. Stirring up the soil may very well allow additional weed seeds to germinate so you may have to till and weed a few times before the soil is actually warmed sufficiently.
In the meantime your indoor seedlings may have to be transplanted one or two times into larger containers before the soil is ready. You should move your containers outside during the day, once the sun is higher in the sky and the air temperatures are warm enough, to harden off the plants. Bring them in at night until all danger of frost is past but be sure that you don’t plant them outside until the ground is sufficiently warm.