Editor’s Note: This is the first of what will be a regular feature in the Sentinel on gardening from local experts with the Douglas County Master Gardeners. This article is by Marjorie Stansel, a UGA Douglas County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer. She is past-president of both the Douglas County Master Gardeners Association and the Georgia Master Gardeners Association. Email Douglasaskamastergardener@gmail.com with your gardening questions.
By now, many of you have already received a number of seed catalogs, ordered your seeds and are ready to plant!
Seed selection is the first step in ensuring a successful crop. Purchase seeds only from reliable companies; Mother Earth News has a good list of seed companies as rated by a large number of customers. If possible, at least for tomatoes, select seeds that are VFN resistant (verticillium, fusarium, nematode). Resistance does not mean disease free, but these diseases are less likely to occur in VFN resistant seeds. Planting seeds you’ve saved is okay, but, unless you plant heirloom seeds, the resulting plant may not be like its parent.
Read the seed packet! Most will tell you to start the seeds in a well-lighted area 6-8 weeks before planting outdoors. The truth is that you will start your seeds in a lower light condition and move to a well-lighted location once germination occurs. The packet will also tell you to sow the seeds indoors 1/4 inch (or other depth) into individual containers filled with seed starting formula. The packet doesn’t tell you what a “seed starting formula” is.
Much information exists for creating your own seed-starting mix (this is not potting soil). The University of Georgia has an excellent publication on Seed Starting which contains additional information on soil mixes (http://extension.uga.edu/publications/files/pdf/B%201432_2.PDF). Generally, soil mixes are really “soilless” mixes, including a mixture of peat moss, perlite or vermiculite (or coarse sand). These mixes must be soaked in water for a few days prior to planting. You can purchase a potting mix from local hardware or big box stores. Remember, you will only need enough to start the number of seeds you wish to plant.
The container you use is up to you, but the variations are myriad. Some use recycled plastic containers or cups; some use peat pots or fiber pots. Peat or fiber pots “should” allow you to upgrade your plant to a larger container when appropriate. I prefer to plant a couple of seeds directly into a one-quart container. By using a larger container, there is no need to repot, and the plant can grow in one container until ready to go into the ground. If you use a plastic container, wash the containers in a 9-1 mix of water to bleach to sterilize the container prior to use. When using a peat or fiber pot to transplant directly into the ground, remove all portions of the pot prior to transplanting. The included photo shows that a pot that fails to decompose causes the root of the plant to wrap itself around the inside of the pot. This leads to a plant that does not send its root downward, making for a weakened plant. The soil and water conditions must be ideal for the pot to decompose. If they are not, then your plant will suffer as did the one above.
Water, air, temperature and light are critical when starting seeds. The potting mixture should be thoroughly wet when planting. I prefer to place my pots in another container and water from the bottom. This forces the roots to reach down to the water and strengthens the stems. If you water from above, mist gently. Keep the soil and seeds moist until germination by placing the containers under a plastic cover to retain humidity. Once germination takes place, the plastic cover should be removed.
Seeds need oxygen to germinate and survive. If your soil mixture is too heavy or does not drain well, the survival rate is much lower.
Most seed packets will give the best soil temperature for germination. Generally, 65 to 75 degrees is appropriate for germination. Once plants have germinated, the temperature can be lowered. Light is important after germination. A well-lit window may not be sufficient to grow a strong plant. A grow light is recommended, typically placed close to the top of the seeds and moved further away as the plant grows.
Whatever seeding technique you use (sowing in a large tray or sowing in individual containers), remember to label your seeds even if you plant only one type. If you plant an entire tray with one type of seed, use a craft stick or a plastic knife to mark the name of the plant. You would be surprised how often someone doesn’t remember what kind of tomato they planted.
Direct seeding (planting the seeds directly into the soil) is appropriate for so many plants. At the Master Gardener’s Plant a Row for Hunger, we direct seed beans, carrots, collards, corn, cucumber, kale, okra, peas, radish, spinach, squash and turnips. We use plants for cabbage, tomato and peppers.
If you raise your own plants from seeds, and sow the seeds, you will need to thin the seeds as they grow. Be careful when thinning that you do not disturb the root of the stronger plant you wish to keep. Once you are ready to transplant, put the plants outside on and off for about a week to harden them off for transplanting in the garden.
An important thing to remember is not to try too hard. Don’t poke and prod the soil around the new seedlings while waiting for them to emerge. A little neglect is useful! Happy gardening!