Seed planting in Spring and caring for sprouts

 Seed Planting in Spring

Seed planting in spring and caring for the sprouting seedlings are always popular pastimes and certainly April is one month that has Northern Hemisphere gardeners chomping at the bit.

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Whether you had carefully scrutinized seed catalogues for your purchases or chosen them from the countless seed displays in local stores, you will have noticed the huge variety of seeds available!  Perhaps you collected seeds collected from last season’s garden, just as those in the Southern Hemisphere may be doing now as their gardens go dormant as colder weather approaches.

While many seedlings require different germination needs as previously written on this site, no matter  whether gardeners are working in large gardening centres or toiling over their grow lights and window sills, they are all hopeful those conditions have been met.

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 Despite the complex process a seed goes through before the first sprout appears, from large global gardens such as Viceroy’s Palace Garden in India and Tsarskoe Selo Russia, through to massive garden shows like Canada Blooms to our small but priceless gardens, each carefully planted seed carries with it the hope and perspiration of many hands.

Now that seeds are under the lights, or on a sunny window ledge the tricky part begins. Keeping a few simple points in mind should ensure the sprouts you watch daily, will grow tall and healthy awaiting their new home in your garden or planters.

 

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POST GERMINATION CARE

While the information on temperature, light and moisture levels seem pretty straightforward, to novice gardens especially, these both require careful monitoring. In addition, fertilizing is important in the right strength, to help ensure healthy hearty plants come from your seed planting in spring.

 

Temperature

If possible, providing a source of gentle warming from beneath is a valuable tool, enabling most seeds to germinate faster as it mimics the warm soil of your garden or planter. Certainly the top of refrigerators were once the site of many seed tray and seedlings, the newer model appliances give off very little heat. However, if they allow good sunlight, this would still be a good location for both new seeds and struggling seedlings.

The temperature requirements of most seeds are on the packages, but generally whether purchased or collected; seeds and seedlings both have minimum temperatures for good growth. Generally this is approximately 65 º F or 18 º C but above 68 º or 20 º is better. In addition, the optimal temperature is one if many pieces of information on the seed packages.

Heated seed tray starting kits are a big help as the try comes with a heating pad designed to warm the seeds from the bottom at an even temperature. Unfortunately on the one I purchased the actual temperature was not listed but the seeds sprout much faster than the comparable one in the small trays beside it.

 

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If you live in an older home heated by radiators, covered in a non combustible material, trays could be placed there for warmth but monitor the area regularly so they are not baked instead.

There are several problems that can arise if the temperature needs of the sprouting seedlings are not met. The first problem with lower temperatures is the metabolism of the seed/seedling is slower. In addition, the cooler temperatures combined with generally high moisture levels are good breeding grounds for fungus which may result in the disease or condition know horticultural as damping off.

Lighting

Seeds generally require a good source of light and in fact, some require so much to germinate that the packages suggest little to no coverage of the seeds. In addition, some plants do not grow well if planted early indoors and transplanted. I have had little success transplanting sunflowers and in fact, the package instructions say just to plant in the garden after danger of frost is past. While the root systems may not support the transfer, more often than not the plant’s metabolism requires a high level of natural sunlight, hence straggly plants even when under grow lights.

If you do not have a sunny, no draft location for your seed trays, pots, pellets or whatever you planted in to, perhaps grow lights are for you.  There are many locations from larger big box stores and most most large garden centres  that sell tiered, fluorescent lit plant stands. Another good source to check out are garage sales, or on line used items sites as new tiered light stands are generally quite costly.

 

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With the availability of new natural daylight frequency bulbs, often even a desk lamp or shop lighting arrangement can be used for seed planting in spring and  to give seedlings the light boost they need until they can be transitioned to outside areas. Of course there are many home made lighting set ups people have come up with, including adding foil around a light source to keep stray light at a minimum. In addition the increased warmth from the lights also helps with maintaining a good even temperature in the growing area.

To ensure good even lighting, start off with the grow lights approximately 6 inches or 15 cm from the seedlings and raise them as the sprouts grow. If the lights are too high above the greenery, the plants will grow taller and spindly as they try for more lights. In addition the lights should be on 16-18 hours a day to ensure the growth of sturdy  not tall thin plants.  Good, adequate lighting  promotes good leaf formation and strong stems,  and helps prevent  damping off.

Moisture levels

Water levels as any gardener know as crucial to plants, but with seedlings it is a bit tricky. Certainly the peat pellets, coir pots, mini greenhouse, coffee cups and pots that have been carefully planted are being watered regularly, but with the extra light and greenhouse like conditions watering may be a challenge. Of course it is highly recommended to either water via mat watering system or use a spray bottle to keep them seeds moist without disturbing them.

 

Mini Greenhouses on self-wicking water mat

Mini Greenhouses on self-wicking water mat

 

If corms or tuberous plants such as begonias or dahlias are started now to get a jump on the outside growing season, watering with a small container, gently on to the media is best to ensure thorough watering.

Begonia corms    sprouting

Begonia corms
sprouting

 

Possibly the easiest thing for garden novices especially is not drowning the seeds they plant in the spring. While the soil are growing media needs to be moist, try to ensure a consistent source of water by thinking of the seedlings as larger more mature plants. Most plant lovers know they do not need to water a plant every day, but when the soil surface is generally dry. Of course while there are always plants with more exacting water and lighting requirements, this is generally a good run of thumb that should be applied to the younger plant as well.

If there are tray covers on holding in the moisture, check the surface of the media used for possible mould formation. This is also possible when contaminated medium or dirty pots have been re-used. Provided the sprouts are up and growing fine, consider opening any vent on the lid or shifting it to allow more ventilation while maintaining a moist atmosphere over all. If you have rigged up plastic to create a greenhouse effect or are indeed using a greenhouse, remember circulation is vital, so create an opening and consider the use of a fan for good air movement.

Remember not all seeds even of the same plant will sprout at the same time so do not leave the lid on waiting for them all to catch up, so take the lid or dome off when a good percentage have sprouted and mist the rest. While moisture is required, at this point especially, good circulation is a must.

 

striving for better air flow

striving for better air flow

 

Fertilizing

One element often overlooked with seedlings is when and if they need fertilizer. Remember nutrients are important but the seed embryo itself contains all the food the new sprouts will need until they have developed true leaves, not the first ones formed. In fact, according to several expert sources, even mild fertilizer can kill the seedlings by over accelerating their metabolism and burning them.

If the growing medium you used contains no fertilizer, begin weekly feedings with a ¼ strength dilution of fertilizer, whether synthetic or organic. Keep in mind for most plants higher amounts of Phosphorus for good root and plant formation. In addition, if Coir pots or media are used, that coconut fibre product can compete with the new plants of Nitrogen so a more balanced N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) ratio is best. After a week or two ½ strength can be used.

Full recommended dosing is not advisable until the plant is larger and ready to be acclimatized in to a cold frame, or shady area on the way to its permanent home. Another option at that point is mixing a granular organic or synthetic slow release fertilizer in to the soil when the seedlings are moved.

Additional Suggestions

There are countless sites, books, garden experts and even gardening forums that offer a variety of information and support and a few are listed below:

www.GardenWeb.com

www.Helpfulgardener.com

 

Final notes:

While to some, planting seeds in the spring is not something they are interested in, others find it very rewarding. To those of you who cannot spare the time but love to garden, remember most garden centres carry basic perennials, annuals, vegetables etc. at a reasonable cost so you too can have a garden of your own without breaking the bank… so whether it be seeds, sprouts, veggies, ferns, flora or fauna…let your garden inspire you…and happy Spring wherever you are!

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Indoor seed growing

Indoor seed growing is always a joy for many reasons, not the least is that it means winter is nearing an end and spring is not far off. Of course there are many lessons learned each year as we try new seeds and new techniques that often do not yield the results we hoped for. Personally speaking, despite any setbacks…soggy seedlings and all, I still find it so inspiring that so much life, joy, beauty, food and medicinal elements come from such small seed.

There are a few basics that can help the novice who wants to start indoor seed growing and of course there are countless articles in magazine, books and on-line. Please take the following information as a starting point…off you go now, as there are countless seeds to plant.

 

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Choosing Seeds:

Before choosing seeds, remember that the soil and lighting conditions of your garden need to be considered, just as you would when purchasing live plants. The light requirement of the plants after germination is generally shown by a symbol on the seed packages of a sun for full sun through to a cloud for full shade.

Seed sources are everywhere from floral departments of large grocery stores, garden centres, hardware stores and even big box department stores. Of course dreaming our way through local seed catalogues is marvelous fun and gives the widest variety of choices for annuals, vegetables and even perennial seeds. In addition, the great photographs, detailed planting and maturity information as well as many new hybrids not available in stores, makes these companies a great source!

 

Getting ready for Spring

Getting ready for Spring

If you belong to a horticultural society or garden club, you are probably able to participate in a seed exchange for a good source of vial seed as well as information on the plants themselves. For those on their own, perhaps others in your neighbourhood have seeds to share or swap. Remember, once you have a hearty plant you love, whether grown from seed or purchased full grown, you will have all the seeds you need for next year’s growing season.

Annuals and vegetables are generally the easiest to start indoors as their germination requirements are quite straight forward. Perennials on the other hand may need stratification or scarification before germination can begin. Stratification is a cold period required to break the seeds dormancy, which can be achieved by a few weeks in the refrigerator before planting, or by planting directly in to the garden bed near the last frost date. Scarification is nicking or sanding through the seeds tough outer coat so the moisture required for germination can get in.

 

Seed Planting

Follow Directions:

Seed packs will contain a great deal of information on the plant itself, including the light requirement as mentioned, and length of time for flowers to bloom or vegetables to harvest. With new varieties of both available, even maturity times have changed so reading the packages is always important.

 

Perennial seed instructions

Perennial seed instructions

Annual seeds best started Outdoors

Annual seeds best started Outdoors

Further information on planting depth, times, light requirements, and growing temperatures are provided to ensure you have optimal germination. In addition, specific details for more challenging seeds would also be listed. An example of this would be for seeds requiring light to germinate so you not cover them with soil, while others might need soaking, scarifying or stratifying. Plants that do not transplant well will also be indicated and these seeds should only be planted outside once the danger of frost is past.

Word of warning: If you plant too early, the seedlings and young plants may become spindly and overgrown, despite good sunlight or strong grow lights!

 

Planting Media:

While regular potting soil can be used but as it can be heavy when wet, soilless mix is recommended. Jiffy pellets, which are peat moss compressed for ease of storage and use are readily available both in kits and often priced per piece. The advantage of these media is their inexpensive prices and that no containers are needed as the mesh around them ensures they retain their shape even in the wet, expanded state.

Jiffy pellet kits are readily available in most types of stores selling seeds as they hope to encourage customers to try their hand at indoor seed growing.  There are many brands of soilless mix available at garden centre and many easy recipes for mixing your own.

As it has now been determined that peat Moss is not an infinitely available resource, grown coconut fibre or compost can be used instead with the addition of compost.

Basic Soilless Potting Mixes              

  • 4-6 parts Sphagnum Peat Moss
  • 1 part Perlite
  • 1 part Vermiculite

OR

  • 4 parts coconut coir
  • 2 parts compost
  • 1 part Vermiculite
  • 1 part perlite

 

Coir is a natural fibrous material extracted  from coconut husks, which are the byproducts of other industries  that use coconuts for food products. In addition to many commercial items manufactured from these harvested husks, they are also used in horticulture.Frequently labelled as Coco Peat , this product is commonly available in gerden cnter as are vermiculite and perlite.

Coir or coconut husk segregation

Coir or coconut husk segregation

 

Coco peat is recommended as a substitute for shagnum moss (peat moss), because it is free of bacteria and fungal spore, and produces good results without the environmental damage caused by peat mining.

Coco peat is usually shipped and sold in compressed forms of bales, briquettes or discs which expand up to more than ten times their weight after  the consummers add water.Unfortunaley while it is a great produce to hold moisture, it is low in nutrients and can compute for nitrogen in the soil,  so when used as a soil additive compost or other slow release fertilizer should be added.

Containers and accessories

There are a wide variety of containers you can use  for indoor seed growing, from small flower pots to any container with drainage holes (cell pack, pots, jiffy pellets, Styrofoam coffee cups, food trays etc.). Remember if reusing containers, to wash with them soap, water and a little bleach first and then rinse them very well to ensure any fungus, bugs or bleach is long gone!

 

old pots before washing

old pots before washing

 

In addition you would need trays to hold those containers, plastic covers or domes to keep the moisture in and labels to ensure plants are properly identified. Of course you can use the clear lids of takeout containers or even clear plastic veggie bags held above the seeds. I have found popsicle sticks wedged down in the corners of a small container works fine and I remove it once the seeds have poked out of the growing media.

Theses sticks can also be used as labels there or if broken off and placed in front of where you will place a specific seed. One drawback to these is that ink can run on the wood. You can buy plastic plant labels or even cut up margarine lids. There are many ways money can be saved and items reused and indoor seed planting is no different.

 

Planting:

Fill the containers with your sterile planting media and moisten the mixture so it feels like a damp sponge about an hour an hour before sowing to let the water penetrate evenly. While wait you can collect all seeds and planting devices as well as go over the seed planting information to ensure you have soaked, scarified or stratified the appropriate seeds.

The most difficult thing about planting seed is getting the right depth especially for the smaller seed. In addition, the smaller seeds almost seem to disappear so for those a planting aid helps. There are small plastic seed holders available that have a tiny opening designed to let small seeds out one or two at a time. For the handy minded person, a small envelope can be sealed and then a tiny hole poked in the end, allowing seeds out.

 

Watering:

Your newly planted seeds need to be watered lightly from the bottom of the pot or by using a spray bottle to ensure the seeds are moistened but not disturbed. When they are moist, cover them with a plastic dome and place them in a warm location to germinate. Other options for speedier germination are placing them on top of the fridge, under grow lights , safely by a warm heat source as they germinate best between 18 – 24°C. In fact, there are temperature controlled heating pads specifically designed for this purpose which are available in kits or individually at most garden centres.

Once germination has take place, make certain the dome or clear plastic cover is unsealed to ensure good ventilation and prevent fungal growth in the soil. Fungal buildup, called damping off can cause seedlings to turn black at soil level and die overnight. In the past I have had this issue when crowding pots and pellets too close together which also blocks good airflow.

Prevention is best, but antifungal products are available, and seedlings could be sprayed with commercial fungicides Mycostop or Captan , but there are healthier herbal remedies you can use. A home remedy that apparently prevents this as well is a one dusting of ground cinnamon on the soil surface.  A Chamomile tea infusion of 3 tea bags soaked for about 20 minutes can be lightly misted over the seedlings.  Garlic as well is known to be a natural fungicide, so mash up several cloves and boil then in about an inch of water and water in to the seedlings once cool.  Of course good spacing and even a fan can ensure better air movement, no matter where you have the seeds growing.

Once the seedlings get an inch or two high, you can remove domes or covers completely, but keep an eye they not get too dry either. Water lightly still, once the soil begins to look dry.

 

Light:

Seedlings love light, so if you only have a few, placing them on a sunny window ledge should do the trick. For many of use with limited light and a seedling urge that is hard to control, grow lights are a good option. There are light stands, small lamps and many fixtures where grow light bulbs can be used instead of regular fluorescent tubes. Again, a much needed field trip to a garden center is a must, at least to research your options!

Grow lights or cool fluorescent lights work best and now there are a few frequency options such as natural, wide range and those designed to simulate sunlight. Ideally optimal amount of light for your seedlings under lights are 16 hours on, 8 off. And the lights should only be 4-6 inches above them to start. Remember, whether your newly sprouted plants are under lights or in a sunny spot, leggy seedling are an indication that the light is inadequate.

Transplanting & Fertilizing:

After the seedlings have formed their second set of leaves they can be gently transplanted in to individual pots. In addition, feeding them a general balanced water soluble fertilizer of 20-20-20 at approximately ¼ strength once a week, is recommended for good growth. Gradually increase the strength over the next few weeks as you prepare to harden the new plants and move them outside.

 

Hardening Off :

 Before you move the young plants in to their final containers, or in to the ground of your garden, they need to adjust to the outside conditions they will call home. This process, which is called our seedlings into containers or the ground outdoors, it is essentially to “hardening off” is a gradual period of acclimatizing which ensures a good survival and growth of the once tiny seedlings.

 

As the light intensity, temperature outdoors, wind etc. is much different than what they were used to inside, begin  by moving the trays and containers out in to a shady, protected area  for a couple of days . Then gradually extending the stay and moving them over a week to ten day period, to where they get their ideal light, soil and temperatures needs.