With the dreadful weather outside this winter, I bring you a ray of hope.
Seed-starting season is upon us. In fact, with a few simple tools and a little time investment, you can grow all sorts of things inside. Nothing is quite as rewarding as watching those little seedlings emerge, grow and later move them to the garden. This subject is broad. Further reading will be needed, but here are a few basics to keep in mind as you get started.
Starting seeds is a great way to save money on annual flowers, herbs and vegetables. Perennials from seed take quite a bit more skill, so stick with annuals for now. Options include annual flowers, broccoli, cucumber, kale, lettuces, peppers and tomatoes. Crops such as beans, beets, carrots, onion, peas, spinach and radish will do best sewed directly outside.
A standard fluorescent shop fixture containing two 40-watt bulbs will provide enough light to grow seedlings indoors. Lights should be no more than 4 to 6 inches above the seedlings. You will need to be able to change the light height as the seedlings grow. Fancier light systems are available in store or online. Lights should be on 12 to 14 hours a day. A timer is helpful to ensure proper lighting. Seedlings need to sleep just like we do.
Many varieties are available online or at your local nursery. You also can use milk cartons, paper cups, produce containers or egg cartons to start your seeds. For any container, it is essential that there are drainage holes in the bottom. It is common to transplant your seedlings once to a slightly larger container for a few more weeks of growing inside.
Is growing medium a fancy word for dirt? Not quite. Seeds started indoors need a lightweight, clean, soilless seed-starting mix.
Most seeds require a consistent temperature of 70 to 75 degrees to germinate. I use a water-resistant heat mat made for this use underneath my seed trays to ensure they stay warm and cozy.
Germinating seeds need daily attention, consistent water and good drainage. An empty water bottle with holes poked in the lid with a pin makes the perfect mini waterer.
Wash any containers and tools in soapy water and disinfect them in a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach before you begin. Keep your workspaces and supplies clean throughout your growing season.
Getting the timing right is important so that your seedlings are ready and well prepared for a few days of gradual acclimation to outside in a protected area, a process known as “hardening off,” followed by planting in the garden with close attention to keeping the new transplants moist.
Seed packets have a wealth of information to determine when to plant your seeds. Search “seed starting plan” online and you will find many downloadable plans for you to customize. These plans use the last average frost date in calculations, which is May 10 in Cedar Rapids.
For more information, visit www.extension.iastate.edu and search “seed starting” to bring up more articles to grow your knowledge.
l Lisa Hinzman Howard has been a Linn County Master Gardener since 2011. For gardening questions, call the Linn County Extension Master Gardener Hortline at (319) 447-0647.