116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The pandemic-fueled home gardening craze will continue in 2021. With tight budgets and an uncertain food supply, many of you rushed to till new plots or plant in patio pots and raised beds last year. You grabbed whatever was available and put it in soil.
This year, you've got time to start your own seeds. This gives you access to a wider variety of plants and can save you money. You don't even need a fancy greenhouse. All it takes is planning, a little more of your time and some basic supplies.
Don't worry, you haven't missed your opportunity. Gardeners in the corridor still have time to start any seed that needs eight weeks or less indoors. This includes many varieties of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and eggplant.
Cool-weather crops - carrots, lettuces, cabbages, root vegetables, brassicas - can be planted before the last frost, so get out there.
The key to healthy seedlings, also called transplants, is to read the seed packet instructions and wait until the time is right. In our growing zone (zone 5), the average last frost date is typically around may 15. That means many seeds shouldn't be started indoors before mid-march.
Feed Iowa First's Emmaly Renshaw, farm manager, and Kit Kirby, farm coordinator/Americorps Vista, start thousands of seedlings intended for urban plots or extra rows in commercial gardens throughout linn county. They also start seeds on a much smaller scale for their home gardens and offer these tips for new gardeners.
Renshaw, a mother of four, advises parents to plant things their kids like to eat. Cherry tomatoes rarely make it into her house: her four kids eat them right off the vine. Just for fun this year she bought five, bushel gourd seeds that could grow to 100 pounds or more.
Her older kids start heirloom tomatoes in plastic flats placed in front of a large, sunny, south-facing patio window next to floor vents.
Kirby is starting this year's garden by using seeds purchased last year. She reuses the same plastic trays from year to year. She creates soil blocks, installs grow lights, and keeps trays warm with dense foam insulation. She's also grown in a 55-degree basement using a shop light and shelf surrounded by insulation, and the plants were fine, she said.
If you have some seeds leftover from last year, most will likely germinate. If you save seeds from one year to the next, it is best to put them in the freezer. Then to test their germination rate before you take the time and space in your garden, put a few seeds in a wet paper towel, keep it wet for the germination period, and see what percentage germinate.
'Seeds, especially if new, will last at least two seasons,” renshaw said.
Kirby said she may expand her own garden this year.
'I'm re-establishing a site of my own this year. I'm planning on a 12-foot by 16-foot fenced-in area,” kirby said. 'I may get overly excited and expand that.”
Both kirby and renshaw encourage new gardeners to not be too eager to transplant outdoors. Warm weather-loving plants such as tomatoes and peppers shouldn't be planted outdoors until may 15. And while many iowans tend to start planting mother's day weekend, they suggest waiting another week just to be on the safe side.
'One cold night with those warmer plants can do a lot of damage,” renshaw said.
Seed starting how-tos
Starting your own seeds? Follow these basic indoor seed-starting tips.
' Before you buy, read the back of the seed packet or online description. If the instructions seem too complicated, choose another type of seed to start.
' Remember, grow only vegetables and herbs that you like to eat and flowers you enjoy.
' To make it easy, you can buy a seed-starting kit that contains everything you need, except the seeds. Kits usually include a tray, individual plastic cells or peat pots, a clear plastic cover and growing medium, plugs or pellets. Most cost less than $20 and can be used for several years. Pricier kits include waterproof heat mats.
' Follow packet instructions exactly: when to start heat, light, depth to plant and watering. Pay attention to whether the seeds like to be covered or not with soil and how much.
' Don't start seeds too early. To figure out when you should start seedlings indoors, just count back the number of recommended weeks. March 21 is about eight weeks before the expected last frost date. That means, for example, this week is perfect for starting many varieties of peppers.
Starting seeds too early can result in leggy, weak plants that may not survive once transplanted. Seedlings grown indoors too long also can become rootbound and struggle to adjust to the garden.
' Successive planting - starting seeds in batches a week or two apart - ensures a supply of favorite vegetables over several weeks instead of all at once.
If the packet says to not start seeds indoors, don't. Some seeds hate to be transplanted and are best directly sown in the garden.
Pro tips: buy seeds as soon as possible to ensure you'll get what you want. Inexpensive seeds will often have a low germination rate, resulting in fewer plants. Can't find what you want? Ask friends for extra seeds.
' Don't plant indoor seeds in a regular potting mix or iowa's rich, dark soil. Both retain too much water and is too dense for tender, early roots. Also, do not reuse soil. It could harbor diseases that could wipe out your entire crop.
' Do use a sterilized, seed starting medium or germination mix. These products are lighter and looser than soil due to additions such as perlite (little white balls that look like styrofoam) or vermiculite. This allows seeds to root and draw water more easily.
' Coconut husk, sold in blocks or pellets is another good option. Hydrate in water before placing it in containers.
' Don't press starting medium into the container. Fill loosely, then tap on a solid surface to get rid of air bubbles.
' If you can poke drainage holes in a container, you can probably use it to start seeds. Just make sure it is not see-through: roots don't like the light. Try smaller cottage cheese containers, paper cups or cardboard milk cartons. Wash with soap and water, then disinfect with a diluted bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly with water.
Pro tip: for seeds that don't like to have their roots disturbed through transplanting, use biodegradable pots then plant the entire thing - pot and all - into the ground.
' Starting medium should be moist but not wet before placing seeds. The mixture should stick together when crushed between your fingers, but you shouldn't be able to squeeze out any water.
' Place containers in a shallow tray and water plants from the bottom. If the seed packet indicates it likes to be kept moist, gently mist the top.
' Use a clear plastic cover to keep the container warm and moist during germination. Plastic wrap from your kitchen works for smaller containers. Turn clear plastic totes upside down over larger containers or use a large, clear plastic bag. As soon as you see growth, remove the plastic cover.
' A large, sunny, south-facing window provides enough sunlight for germination. Roll the shades up and open the curtains all the way; there's no such thing as too much sunlight.
' Without a south-facing window, you'll need artificial light. Grow lights can be found at any home and garden store, big box stores and online. Shop lights work well with daylight bulbs.
' Grow lights need to be close to the plants - 4 to 6 inches - and moved higher as seedlings grow. Hanging lights from chains attached to the bottom of the shelving works well. Set a timer to give plants 10 to 16 hours of light each day or mimic the daylight pattern.
' Seeds won't germinate if it is too cold or too hot. The temperature will need to be between 80 to 85 degrees. Thin, waterproof heat mats (about $10) warm the soil from below.
' After germination, most seedlings will continue to grow at comfortable room temperature. Refer to the seed packet: some like warmer temps.
Pro tip: place trays of seedlings on a heat vent or near a radiator. In a colder room, such as a basement, warm the air with a space heater or slide a waterproof heating mat under plant trays and surround shelving with foam insulation to keep heat in.
' Label every cell or individual container with variety, date planted and date the seedlings should be transplanted outdoors. Keep seed packet as a reference.
' Seedlings aren't happy when they go directly into the ground from a protected indoor environment. Get them used to the outdoors before planting.
After the average last frost date, bring seedlings outdoors. Initially, protect plants from midday sun and wind. Start with one or two hours outdoors. Over several days, gradually increase time spent outside. Then plant according to the seed packet instructions.
Pro tip: plant seedlings in late afternoon. They'll avoid the harsh midday sun and have the evening to get used to being outside before cooler nighttime hours.