The space of time between germination and setting out in the ground or container marks the most important stage of any plant’s development. And the most important thing to a plant at this time is light — or lack of it.

People either start their own plants from seeds or buy them from the local nursery or greenhouse. And some start only certain varieties at home and obtain other types from commercial sources. Either way, the type and amount of light a plant was given during its tentative stages has a profound effect upon its overall condition and appearance.

Remember seeing those television commercials for a well-known plant food? The spindly plant on the left was denied this nourishment, while the beefy, solid plant on the right was given an appropriate dose. Such sentiments can lead us to concentrate more upon feeding our seedlings rather than giving them proper light. In the above-mentioned commercial, it seems likely that the seedling on the left was, in addition to being nutritionally deficient, denied proper light.

And now, heading into May, we begin the countdown to setting out either our own home-raised or commercially-obtained seedlings. During this approximately month-long period, our seedlings deserve special care. Let’s begin with hints on raising hardy seedlings at home.

Start small

Many plants, especially tomatoes, benefit from being started in a small container and as they grow, going to larger containers. It also helps to add potting soil to existing containers if plants grow a bit too fast. This makes for stronger stems.

Supplemental light

People often choose a sunny window or some similar situation to grow their seedlings. This would probably work fine if the window faced solar south and the sun shone brightly every day. But those two circumstances do not often occur together. Weak sunlight, filtered through trees, or perhaps not bathing the seedlings for a full day, makes for weak, spindly plants. Also, if current trends continue, we will not see a steady string of sunny days for some time. This underscores the necessity for some sort of remedial light.

Standard fluorescent bulbs provide adequate light for growing seedlings. But specially-designed plant lights do better. Recently, I purchased a kit containing a stand and a T5 fluorescent bulb that produces a full daylight spectrum. The manufacturer advertises that this bulb has 20 percent more light intensity than comparable grow lights. And that is what we want.

Even better, this ready-made kit features an infinitely-adjustable hanger for the bulb. This allows the bulb to sit just over the top of the plants, thus imparting maximum light. And a seedling grown with this amount of light will certainly look like the “plant on the right.”

As the seedlings grow, this design allows the user to raise the bulb accordingly, keeping it in just the right zone, barely above the tops of the plants.

Don’t interpret any of this to mean that natural sunlight, even sunlight filtered through window glass, is not valuable. It is. In fact, my grow light and frame sit in front of a glass panel, allowing for sunlight to bathe the plants, even as the artificial light shines from above. In the end, my seedlings will go outside as robust, thick and bushy plants.

Commercial seedlings

All-glass (or plastic) greenhouses circumvent the need for supplemental lighting. Here, light hits plants from all sides. Even on days where sun and clouds spar for prominence, diffused light fills such greenhouses, bathing plants with plenty enough light.

But not all greenhouses enjoy this high degree of efficiency. Some have knee-walls, keeping out light that might otherwise enter on a slanting angle. Some suffer from partial shade due to nearby houses, trees or other structures. Plants grown here may not have the thick stems and healthy, dark green color we look for.

Tomato plants, more than most, reflect the degree of light they received as young seedlings. Plants that were denied proper light will seem overly-tall, with thin stems. Brushing one of these with a hand will cause the plant to wave about. The same will happen to that plant on windy days after being set outside. And the last thing we need for our young garden plants is for them to wave about in the wind. This can harm the young, delicate root structure, causing poor development. Properly grown plants, however, are quite able to withstand winds without suffering significant harm.

So when shopping for tomato seedlings, select only those that appear rather squat, with strong, thick stems and healthy, dark-green leaves. Avoid tall, spindly plants with yellowish or very light-green leaves. These indicate a lack of light, poor nutrition, or both.

Even though taller, thinner plants may seem a better buy because they are bigger, they are a poor investment. And don’t worry about those shorter, hardy seedlings. When set out at the proper time, they quickly surpass taller, thinner plants.

The same applies to flower seedlings. Don’t be put off by seedlings that are perhaps low, but exhibit healthy color and structure. These are the best of the best. Also, do not necessarily buy flowers, especially annuals, that are in full bloom. Better to go for plants that have lots of buds, but few open blossoms. These will acclimate quicker in a garden setting.

So whether growing your own or buying from a garden center, look for hardy, robust plants that do not bend at the slightest prodding. These are fine, even if they appear a bit short. And avoid those tall, weak plants at all costs.

Handy tip

Homeowners spend countless hours chipping away at tree stumps. Some people incorporate the stumps into their garden design by setting rocks or planks on the edges and filling with soil, an instant raised bed. But for those who just want that stump gone, here’s a way to get rid of it once and for all.

Save fresh, green grass clippings and heap them up on top of the stump. Us as many as will fit on the stump without spilling. Then cover the clippings and stump with a black plastic bag. As the clippings decompose (they turn into what some composter companies call, “black gold"), they generate heat. And the plastic traps the heat and also, gains and holds heat from the sun, effectively “cooking” the stump.