Sunday, January 20, 2008

Tips and Tricks to Seed-Starting

From Carol Eichler,  revised from Green Dragon, February, 2004.

While I make no claims to be an expert, I’d like to offer some tips and tricks from my own experience with growing plants from seed and more specifically from the NARGS seed exchange.

1. A sturdy four-shelf “workshop” shelving unit works well as a growing stand, is inexpensive, and provides a lot of growing space for small plants without taking up a lot of room. A sunny window simply does not supply enough light.

2. Use 2-row fluorescent shop lights – no need for the more expensive full-spectrum “plant” lights on the market. Mount them to the bottom of each shelf.

3. I keep the lights on 24/7. It’s just easier – a no-brainer. And it’s especially helpful to guarantee that seedlings enjoy literally life-saving “sunshine” as they emerge. They can get weak and leggy if they’re deprived of this early light.

4. Position the lights 3-4 inches from the top of the plants. Hang them from the shelving with a chain to allow you to adjust the distance from the plants as they grow.

5. For potting medium you can’t beat commercial seed starting soil mix. It holds moisture
well – critical for seed germination, doesn’t compact, and it helps promote vigorous root growth.

6. I fill small pots – 4-inch is my preferred size– with potting medium to about 1/4 inch from the top. I like to sow the seeds in rows. The “organization” makes it easier for me to handle small seedlings at transplant time. However, this may not be possible with really small seeds. Again the pot size allows plenty of space for root growth. These individual pots are then placed into plant trays. Be sure to label your pot with plant name and date.

7. I don’t cover small seed but do pat them firmly into the soil so there is good contact. Then, I mist over the top, In the past I have layed a sheet of plastic over the tray to help keep the soil constantly moist but have found this tricky to navigate. Instead, I now buy a plastic cover that’s made to fit over the plastic plant tray and it has worked beautifully.

8. I check once or twice a day to see what needs tending. Water? I mist to avoid over-
watering which seems to be my biggest pitfall. Have seedlings emerged? I cheer. Do the lights need to be raised? Does anything need to be transplanted?

9. When seedlings are ready to transplant (first true leaves appear), I switch to a gritty soil mix that alpines prefer – adding coarse sand or perlite whatever I have on hand – to commercial soil-less mix, operating on the premise that this medium is still a temporary home for the plant.

10. I transplant to 2-inch pots and can fit 2 dozen or more into a tray.

So what do I do with the pots of seed which haven’t germinated? I know some alpine seed can takes months to years to germinate as well. I dutifully to care for them, take them outdoors when the weather allows, and let nature take over (with no success, I might add). For now, I’m content to play the odds and go the easy route. I am rewarded with enough success that I have more plants than I know what to do with. I bring the excess to the Chapter seedling exchange and that problem is quickly solved!

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