By Cheryl Brendel
As spring approaches and we are overloaded with seed catalogues, we begin to think about our gardens. What worked last year, what didn’t do well, did we plant too much? Should we try another type of tomato, pepper, lettuce, etc.? A common gardening mistake is to start seeds indoors too early.
By starting seeds indoors, we do gain four to six weeks in contrast to starting in the ground. Starting them in the ground too early will cause them to rot in the cool damp garden. The back of the seed packet will tell you when to plant or start the seed indoors. It is a good idea to keep a journal from year to year to remind yourself of what seeds you felt were successful for you.
In Pennsylvania, warm season crops such as eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and melons have a better chance to reach their prime harvest season if started indoors and transplanted outdoors after the last chance of frost, usually after Memorial Day when the garden soil is warmer. It gives the plants more time to develop.
Starting seeds indoors requires light once the seeds germinate. Without enough light, the seedlings will become weak and stringy. With enough light, they will have a stronger stem. If you do not have natural light from a southern window, you will need supplemental lighting.
Temperature also affects the number of seeds that germinate. Generally 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit is best for germinating most plants.
You can purchase many items to start your seeds. However, you do not need to go out and spend a lot of money on peat pellets and special trays. I recall one gardener who told me she likes this time of year, as she bought cookies in plastic trays, enjoyed them, and then used the trays as terrariums to start seed. Other items people have used are empty plastic containers, such as yogurt or sour cream. Some gardeners make pots from newspaper, which can them be planted directly into the garden. Drain holes in whatever you choose to use are important, as overwatering can drown your seedlings. Place something under these containers to prevent water damage under the container.
So you have containers and seed, what should you plant it in? The best start for seedlings is a fine, well-draining medium like seed starting mix. The soil from the garden may contain disease-causing organisms that may be harmful to baby seedlings. It is will also be much more compact, not allowing good drainage in containers.
After you decide on the container, fill it full with seed-starting mixture and sow the seed according to the specified depth and water the mix. If the mixture is dry, moisten it slightly before placing it in the container. If your home is dry, it may help to cover the containers with plastic wrap to keep the soil moist, as they are sensitive to drying out. Do not over water, as seedlings may lead to damping off, which is a disease caused by fungus and is deadly to seedlings. Another option is to use peat pellets or cubes. These are soaked until wet, then seeds are planted into the holes provided. When ready to go into the garden, the whole pellets or cube is planted without disturbing the roots.
When planting the seed, always refer to the instructions on the packet. It will give you the planting instructions. You will also need to harden off those plants that you start indoors before putting them in the garden.
If you are interested in gardening and volunteering in our community, the Penn State Extension in Waynesburg will be offering Master Gardener Classes this fall. For more information, call 724-627-3745.