Wow, how about the weather! President’s weekend we saw some of the lowest temperatures we have had in many years. Looking outdoors at the snow and the thermometer, gardening seems a long way off. But there is something we can do now that will get our hands in the dirt, think positively about the coming spring and energize our spirits in the midst of the winter. We can plant some seeds and start plants indoors.
Starting seeds indoors allows us to extend our growing season and grow long season fruits and vegetables, such as watermelons and pumpkins, and annuals that will bloom earlier in the spring and continue to bloom throughout the growing season. You may have received some catalogues in the mail and already ordered seeds, but that is not the only place to get seeds; they are already available in garden centers and even grocery stores.
This year you may encounter a ‘shortage’ of certain seeds. There could be several reasons for that. One may be the increase in demand. Last summer the COVID pandemic created a whole new generation of home gardeners, many who found a new passion and will continue gardening in the future. While many seed companies, especially smaller ones, may have anticipated an increase in demand there might have been little they could do to meet it. They purchase their seeds from farmers who grow crops specifically for the seed. (For example in rural Minnesota you can see many fields labeled as seed corn.) This year’s seeds were grown last summer and the seed companies placed their orders for the seed early in 2020 – before the pandemic. So unless they were able to find additional seed from other sources they will probably only have enough to satisfy pre-pandemic demand.
Other reasons for shortages could be delays in packaging which is slower because of the pandemic. Some smaller companies only have one or two employees processing orders. Also every year there can be shortages due to crop failures for natural reasons including, insects, disease, hail, floods, droughts and unexpected frosts.
Many seed packets will contain far more seeds than you want to start so if you saved seeds from a previous year you can use them as long they were stored in a cool, dry place. But each year you may find the seeds are less viable and fewer will germinate – so you may want to “over plant” with old seeds to ensure adequate germination.
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 a sterile container to avoid any pathogens that might prevent germination or kill off the seedlings. If you are reusing old containers you can sterilize them by soaking them in a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.
Use a soil-less sterile seed starting medium; non-sterilized seed starting mix can harbor a host of seed and root-rotting fungi. Water the planting medium before you plant the seeds in order to avoid washing the seeds right out of the medium. Plant the seeds to the depth indicated on the seed packet. 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 seeds from washing away. Keep the potting mix moist during germination (usually one to two weeks) with a spray bottle. Seeds will germinate quicker, and healthier roots will develop, if the soil is kept warm by a heat source below the container. Electric heat mats can be purchased at a garden center that will provide the correct temperature. Soil that is too cool can encourage disease and if it is too warm it may dry the plants out.
One of the most important needs 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. If you are starting seeds that need darkness you can cover the tray with a black plastic bag until the plants germinate. 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 March 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 12-16 hours of light each day.
Seeds contain all the energy needed for a plant to sprout, but once the seedlings have grown their first set of ‘true’ leaves you may want to start fertilizing. Use a solution of 1/4 strength garden fertilizer about once a week. If you start seeds now you may have to transplant the seedlings into larger containers once or twice before they are ready to be planted outside. You can move your containers outside during the day once the sun is higher in the sky and the temperature is warm enough, but be sure that you don’t plant them outside until the ground is sufficiently warm and all danger of frost is past.
- All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today – Celebrating Nature