Stocky Seedlings

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If you’re planning to grow a garden this summer, odds are you intend to start at least some of your plants from seed. Here in Colorado, with our short growing season and unpredictable weather (such as the 70 degree drop last week), it’s worthwhile to start a lot of those seeds indoors.

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Patience Pays

2009-04-12 Easter morning snow 006One thing I’ve learned (the hard way) is that it pays to be patient. Rushing the season usually results in cold-stunted plants, reduced yields, or, even worse, losing an entire crop to a late frost or snowstorm.

For example, most garden guides tell you to plant broccoli and other crucifers early—two weeks before your average last frost date—as the young plants can stand some frost. What they don’t tell you is that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures will ruin your chances for a harvest. Two to three days of temperatures that stay below 40 degrees will fool the seedlings into thinking they’ve experienced winter (can’t blame them a bit!). Instead of growing up and producing the nice, succulent head you’re anticipating, the broccoli will try to force the issue and “button.” That is, it will rush to bloom while still small, and all you get is a one-inch (or smaller) head with a bitter taste and tough texture. Bleah!

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Wind

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I know that wind is merely “air in motion,” but why does it have to be in such a hurry?

Here in Colorado, the wind has been blowing for weeks now—and not just gentle breezes, but howling gales that topple trees and suck every drop of moisture from already desiccated soil. First a dry winter, now this ceaseless wind.

As a gardener, there are times when I’m totally frustrated by too much wind. It stunts the growth of tender new shoots (I’m not trying to create bonsai tomatoes, but sometimes that’s what I get) and makes working in the garden a miserable experience.

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Starting Seeds: Pre-germination

corn-germinating-on-towel-lah-1Vegetable seeds will germinate with or without soil. All they really need is an infusion of water to swell the seed coat, and sufficient warmth to signify spring. In fact, seeds for our most commonly grown food crops are among the easiest to start. They will begin their growth on a paper towel, a bed of agar, or even while still inside the fruit where they were formed! The home gardener can put this fertility to good use.

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Starting Seeds: Growing Transplants

Congratulations. You are the proud parent of a tray (or more) of baby plants. Remember, though, with parenting comes responsibility.

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These are just the “seed leaves”

Once your seedlings are up and growing, they’ll require almost daily attention. If your potting mix did not contain fertilizer, you’ll need to start a feeding schedule. Wait until the first true leaves appear. (The initial “seed leaves” are the cotyledons, which contain plenty of food to get the baby off to a good start.) Use any liquid all-purpose fertilizer at half-strength, twice as often as the directions tell you.

And speaking of water, don’t let them dry out! At this stage, wilting is fatal, Even if your plants survive, they will suffer the effects of this trauma all their days. The ultimate crop yield will be smaller, and won’t taste as good, compared to plants that grew unchecked.  Continue to water from the bottom, using water that is room temperature or lukewarm. You don’t want to shock their little roots with ice water!

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Starting Seeds: Light

If you’ve ever tried growing seeds indoors, you may have ended up with tall and spindly plants, flopping over, adorned with pale leaves. When planted outside, these ungainly wisps quickly succumb to bright sunlight and the gentlest of breezes. What’s a gardener to do?

While overabundant food and water, coupled with too-warm temperatures, contribute to this problem, the primary culprit is insufficient light.

The crops most commonly grown in our veggie gardens all require full sun—at least eight hours per day. Likewise, bright light is essential for producing stocky seedlings with healthy green leaves.

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Starting Seeds: Soil and Water

Do not start your indoor seedlings in soil.

Does that surprise you? Yet, even good garden loam is not the best choice for growing transplants.

For one thing, soil is more than just dirt. It is full of micro-organisms such as nematodes, bacteria, and fungi. Out in the garden, they keep one another in check. Indoors, it’s another story. One of the most common causes of seedling failure, “damping off” is a disease causes by a fungus. Once infected, it is fatal to the baby plants. The only hope is prevention.

You do have the option of sterilizing your garden soil. You can bake it at about 250º F for several hours. That will kill all those nasty diseases. It will also create a stench in your home. If you want to stay on good terms with your housemates, this is not the best way to go.

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Starting Seeds: Containers

Raise your hand if you remember starting seeds in elementary school. Perhaps they sprouted in the cells of a cardboard egg carton. Sound familiar? Now, did your seedlings grow and thrive? Hmm, thought so. Granted, you probably forgot to water them, or you dropped the whole shebang on the way home from school. But it wasn’t all your fault. Egg cartons make awful seed starting containers.

What should you use to start those little seedlings? There are a number of excellent choices. Suitable containers share several attributes.

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