Rev up the process: Gardeners, start your seeds...

By Lynette Walther | Mar 04, 2020
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Large seeds, like sunflowers, can be soaked in warm water before planting to speed up germination.

In the race to beat the season and get a crop of something ready to hit the ground running, savvy gardeners are thinking of -- if not already -- starting their seeds. Being able to get a leg up in the short growing season by starting seeds now is important.

Starting from seed is one of the most economical methods to gardening and the best way to get those new and unique varieties.

Starting seeds early enables local gardeners to grow varieties that might otherwise take too long to come into production for food or flowers if they were simply planted in the ground as seeds when the soil and nighttime temperatures were perfect. We know all seeds are not equal, they don’t even all look alike, and they certainly do not germinate the same.

Soil temperature is key, and a quick check of any seed package gives the optimum temperature for starting that particular seed. When starting seeds indoors, in most cases your indoor temperatures will be sufficient to warm soil temperatures for germination. But there are varieties, like some watermelons for example, that prefer a soil temperature of 85 degrees.

To achieve a warm or warmer soil there are a few options. An electric seed-starting mat or heating can quickly raise the temperature in a flat. Or put the flat on top of a refrigerator. Remove flats to a sunny windowsill once the seeds have sprouted.

A good commercial seed starting mix is recommended to get the seeds off to a good start and avoid disease issues once they sprout.

Even though the daylight is getting longer each day, just keeping seedling flats on windowsills will not provide enough light. Light or the lack of it, is a challenge.

Seeds will need at least 16 hours of light each day, so plan on adding a light source for success. This can be a special grow light or a two-bulb shop-type light fitted with a warm and cool fluorescent tube bulb.

Many seeds, like those of beans, corn, gourds, squash, and nasturtiums and peas or sweet peas for example, benefit from soaking in tepid water anywhere from four to six hours to overnight before planting, depending on the thickness and hardness of the outer surface. Drain well before planting.

Try this technique with the new All-America Selections winner ‘Blue Prince’ pumpkin which has vigorous trailing vines and produces nine to 10 blue, flattened pumpkins with deep-orange flesh and savory sweetness. Or get in a quick crop of ‘Snak Hero,’ a new and improved snap pea All-America Selections winner for 2020.

Small seeds can be spread on a moistened paper towel and slipped into a plastic bag for this purpose. If you are soaking a number of seed varieties, place dish or sealed plastic bag on top of our next to that variety. In-ground planting of seeds can also employ the overnight soak method to speed germination.

This technique works well with ‘Asian Delight’ pak choi which is compact, upright plant with tender and succulent stems, another All-America Selections winner for 2020. Or try the new a new tomato, a patio-type grape tomato with a bushy habit that is well-suited to container growing. This Selections winner produces uniform oblong sweet fruits.

Once seedlings develop their first true leaves they can be gently separated from flats and put into sixpacks or small pots to let them grown and develop healthy root systems. Depending on variety. Plant seedlings outdoors when soil warms to about 65 degrees and night-time temperatures are well above freezing. Beans, for example, will not set blooms until night-time temperatures are 60 degrees or above.

When planting outdoors, note that soil temperatures for most seeds will need to be 65 degrees or higher. To “cheat” this requirement, consider a raised bed in which the soil should warm up sooner than that on the ground. Container gardens can be “warmed up” indoors for a few days before planting.

Or for in-ground planting, cover the soil with a sheet of clear plastic a week before you plant to sow the seeds. If the weather remains clear and sunny, it should allow the sun to warm it up.

It is one small investment that will pay off in the long run and that sheet of plastic can be saved and then used many years.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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