While it is convenient and enjoyable to purchase your annuals and vegetables at a local nursery, starting seeds from home can offer the gardener more choice in varieties as well as save some money. Starting seeds indoors is not terribly difficult, but it does require patience and careful attention. The following tips should help you through some of the seed starting issues you may encounter.
Different types of plants have different germination and growth rates. The average last frost date in the Plattsburgh area is May 20. Seed packets state how many weeks prior to transplanting to start the seeds indoors. Count back from the end of May to determine when to start your seeds.
You can reuse containers or recycle plastic containers for your project. Just make sure the containers have drainage holes in the bottom - seeds want to be moist, not wet. Sterilizing the containers with a 10 percent bleach solution also help reduce the risk of spreading plant diseases to your seedlings. Dip the containers in the bleach solution and rinse in clean water.
Containers should be filled with a soil-less potting mixture. Place several seeds in each container. Bury the seeds at a depth roughly two times the size of the seed itself. Then cover the containers with loose plastic and keep them warm. You can purchase a heat mat for this or use the top of your fridge. Mist the containers as the soil dries.
Once the seedlings sprout, remove the plastic and give them 16 hours of light each day. This makes a sunny window less than ideal. Instead use one warm and one cool fluorescent light bulb. Place the bulbs several inches above the seedlings and raise the bulbs as the plants grow.
Make sure your seedlings don't dry out, but also do not over water. This will cause damping off - a white cottony fungal growth that will kill your seedlings. Wait until the first set of true leaves emerge before fertilizing. Always dilute your fertilizer to half strength. I fertilize my seedlings once a week.
Next comes the hard part - thinning. Since you planted several seeds per container, you should have several seedlings. Choose the strongest, healthiest looking seedling in each container and cut the rest with a pair of sharp scissors. Since you want plants that produce the most flowers or veggies, there is no sense in attempting heroics to rescue a weak seedling.
As the seedlings get bigger, you may have to move them to bigger pots in order to keep their growth momentum going. In May, you will need to prepare your plants to be transplanted. This process is known as hardening off and I'll write about that during the spring!
Anne Lenox Barlow has had experience in the agricultural field as a horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.