Seed starting

By Tom Seymour | Mar 02, 2018
Photo by: Tom Seymour A grow light, seeds and tray are all ready for planting.

It’s March, and in a few short weeks spring will arrive. But given the caprices of the third month, it’s hard to predict whether we’ll see more snowstorms or if spring will arrive early. Either way, gardeners and homeowners still have some time to go before they can get outside and begin yard and garden work.

Along about this time each year, I suggest that people visit the Bangor Home and Garden Show. But this year the show has moved to a later date and a different venue. It will happen April 20 to 22 at the Alfond Arena in Orono. But by then, spring will be in full bloom, making the late-April date rather anticlimactic. Still, the show always offers something new, along with different twists on things old. Besides, it’s a good chance to pick up potted plants and seeds at a sale price. The show is always worth the price of admission.

Seed starting

It’s not too early to start some seeds, or at least prepare for inside planting. The thing to consider, which many don’t, is days to maturity. It makes little sense to get something growing indoors that will be nearly full-grown before the time comes to set it outside. So what we must do is check the seed packet and do some simple math.

First, we must consider when we want to set our seedlings out in the garden. That means figuring out how long it will take, from the moment we plant the seeds until the seedlings become large enough to set outside. In this, timing is everything. And those who don’t take time to calculate exactly when to start their seeds may wind up with nearly mature seedlings way ahead of schedule or seedlings that are still so small that they may as well have been planted directly outside in the soil.

Seed catalogs give days to germination and also, the total days to maturity from time of transplanting. So using the example of Early Girl hybrid tomatoes, we see that Early Girl germinates in 7 to 14 days and matures in 60 days after transplanting. That means that we must consider the time we plan on setting our tomatoes outside. For most of us in Maine, safe planting time for tender crops starts Memorial Day weekend, which this year begins May 26.

Now, if we want to set out plants that are at least half-grown by May 26, we need to count backwards 30 days, half the time for the plant to mature, and then add another 14 days' germination time. This means if we start our seeds April 12, they will be plenty large enough to set outside by May 26. And after that, given plenty of sunlight and warm temperatures, our Early Girl tomatoes will start growing like gangbusters.

And if you want bigger transplants, just begin a week or so earlier. But beware. Medium-sized tomato seedlings will acclimate to transplanting better than giant, nearly full-grown seedlings. Also, smaller seedlings can be set deep in the ground, past the bottom set of seed leaves. Taller plants, especially thin, leggy ones, must be planted in a trench so the stem can send out roots. All in all, it’s far better to set out smaller but sturdier seedlings. This goes not only for tomatoes, but all vegetables.

Grow lights

Unless you have a spacious, south-facing window in which to grow your seedlings once they germinate, you will need some sort of grow light system. I use Jump Start, a 2-foot light tube with an adjustable frame that lets you raise and lower the bulb as needed.

These things are fairly expensive. I just bought a second light system and it sold for $74.99, which seems pretty steep to me. But grow lights last for years and they really do work well. The old axiom about getting what we pay for applies here. In addition to growing my seedlings in spring, I use my Jump Start light to grow greens inside in winter. It works wonderfully.

Before setting your just-planted-seeds under a grow light, keep them out of direct sunlight until they germinate. After that, take pains to keep the lightbulb almost, but not quite, touching the little plants. As they grow, keep raising the light accordingly, but always, keep it nearly touching the seedlings.

Failure to keep the grow light as close as possible to the newly-germinated seedlings leads to tall, spindly, leggy plants that will fall over in a stiff breeze once transplanted outside unless they are planted in a trench, as mentioned above.

Here’s something else to consider. When you go to a greenhouse, all the seedlings, even the smallest ones, are sturdy and rugged. Why? Because in a greenhouse they get not only moist heat, but also lots of diffused light. The light appears not to come from any one source and it is bright enough, even on cloudy days, to bathe the seedlings in light from every angle.

A home grow-light system cannot duplicate the light in a greenhouse, since the light only shines on the plants from one direction. But by keeping the light as close to the seedlings as possible, you create an environment at least somewhat similar to that of a greenhouse.

Buying seedlings

For those who haven’t space for seed starting, or who just can’t be bothered with grow lights and messy planting soil and so on, it’s easy just to go to the greenhouse or garden center and buy already-started seedlings. The only drawback is that variety is limited and many valuable and interesting species are only available from seed. But for easy gardening with little or no preparation other than tilling and fertilizing, ready-grown seedlings are the way to go.

But even here, we must take a few things into consideration. For instance, if you get too anxious for planting time and decide to buy seedlings a bit earlier than usual, then you must figure on finding a place to grow your seedlings. And that brings us back to the grow-light routine.

“But if I shop early, I’ll get the best seedlings,” some might say. Well, that’s certainly true, but there’s a way around it. The greenhouse where I buy my pepper plants (peppers are somewhat difficult to start and it’s easier just to buy seedlings) is always happy to set aside an order. The person behind the desk once told me that it would be better for me to let the seedlings grow in the greenhouse environment until time to set them out. And she was 100 percent correct.

So if your favorite greenhouse or garden center is willing to set aside an order, that means you can satisfy your gardener’s soul by shopping for and buying seedlings early, but you also have the satisfaction of knowing your plants are in the best place possible until you go and pick them up.

Even with store-bought seedlings, it pays to look for the thickest, sturdiest plants. A lot of people think they are getting a bargain by buying the tallest, biggest plants, but if those plants are somewhat thin and spindly, you have accomplished nothing. So select the most robust-looking seedlings you can find, and they will reward you by growing like rockets as soon as they are set out in the garden.

Tom’s tips

Here’s a trick to make your beet seeds germinate faster. The crumbly “seed” we plant is actually a container for the seed or seeds inside and breaking that container allows the seed to germinate faster. So just before planting, spread your beet seeds on waxed paper and roll with a rolling pin. This will crush the outer husk, allowing for quicker germination.

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