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What you need to know about starting from seeds

The Iowa Gardener: Make sure to read the label

Veronica Lorson Fowler/Stockrocket/Fotolia

Starting plants from seeds doesn’t have to be complicated.
Veronica Lorson Fowler/Stockrocket/Fotolia Starting plants from seeds doesn’t have to be complicated.

Too many people try to start plants from seed and end up discouraged. But if you read up a little on the plant and make sure you provide what it needs, you will have success with seeds.

Here’s how:

  • Choose those plants that are very easy to start from seed. One clue is to look on the seed packet and see how many days the seed takes to germinate, that is, sprout. If it germinates in a week or less, it’s very easy. If it takes a week or two to germinate, it’s somewhat easy. Those seeds that need more than two weeks to germinate or have special requirements, such as freezing, are difficult to start from seed.
  • Don’t reuse seed from the year before. Whether it’s tomatoes or grass seed, seed that has been around for more than a few months is dramatically less likely to germinate well. Seed usually isn’t expensive. Pitch it and buy fresh.
  • Follow seed packet directions exactly. For best success, follow the recommended planting time and temperature suggestions on the label to the letter.
  • Don’t start seeds too early. Most annual vegetables and flowers should be started six to eight weeks before the last frost date. (Check seed packet.) In the Cedar Rapids area, the last average frost date is May 10. So that means starting most seeds in late March or early April. Otherwise, they’ll be indoors too long and get leggy and weak from lack of good, strong, natural sunlight.
  • Use seed-starting mix. Avoid regular potting mix and never use soil dug up from the garden. Choose only a soil or soilless potting mix made specifically for seed. Otherwise, seeds might rot or become prone to diseases.
  • Provide light or dark as needed. Some seeds should not be covered with soil — they need light to germinate. Others need to be covered with soil because they germinate best in the dark. Again, check the seed packet to find out. Then sprinkle soil lightly over the seeds, if necessary, to the depth specified on the packet.
  • Water seeds carefully. Fine seeds are easy to wash down too deeply into the soil. Use a spray bottle or a special bulb sprinkler. Or set the container in a tray filled with water halfway up the sides of the container so water can seep up from the bottom. Remove after a half-hour or when the soil surface becomes moist.
  • Slip into a plastic bag. Put the container into a clear plastic bag. It retains moisture and keeps seeds out of temperature-altering drafts.
  • Provide the right temperature. A big mistake most home gardeners make is not providing enough warmth for the seeds once they’re planted. Seeds packets that specify that seeds need “warm” conditions usually mean 70 to 80 degrees while “cool” means 55 to 65 degrees. Set a room thermometer next to the seeds to make sure they’re at the right temperature and move them around the house until you find the right temperature. To provide enough warmth, you can purchase warming mats to set containers on top of for gentle bottom heat.
  • Provide ample light. This is challenging. As soon as seeds sprout, remove any plastic bag. Place in a very bright south-facing window or directly under a grow light. Better yet, combine the two. So many seedlings get leggy and weak for lack of light. A few years ago I invested in a high intensity grow light. They cost about $300, but mine is so bright I can’t put shade-loving plants underneath it.

l Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at www.theiowagardener.com.

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