Best of
 Wild Things…
Seed Starting Pt. 2
By Karen Vizzi
     Last week, we talked about the importance of timing for indoor seed starting. This week, we’ll cover the four critical requirements for proper culture of seedlings: warmth for germination, adequate moisture, light and fresh air. 
     You can use any small container to start seeds, as long as it has adequate drainage. Small plastic pots, yogurt cartons, even egg cartons will serve the purpose. Just remember that the smaller the container, the more likely the seedling will require transplanting into a larger container before it ultimately reaches the garden. I prefer the plastic cell packs in trays because they are space efficient. ALWAYS use a sterile seed starting mix. Don’t use regular potting soil or soil from the garden. Regular potting soil can hold too much water and garden soil may contain all kinds of nasty things, such as bacteria and insect larvae. Sterile mixes are specifically formulated to prevent problems and are the best choice.
    Warmth - Most seeds require bottom warmth for germination. Light is not as important as warmth at this stage so find a toasty place (like the top of the refrigerator) to place your seeds until they germinate. I put mine on the mantle of my gas fireplace.
    Moisture – Check your seeds every day to be sure the soil mix has not dried out. A good way to keep them moist at this point is to use a hand sprayer/mister. A regular stream of water from a watering can may be too heavy and dislodge the seeds. The trick is to keep the mix evenly moist, and you must remain vigilant throughout the growth of the plants…or at least until they are transplanted into the garden.
    Light – Once the seeds have germinated, they need to be moved to a strong light source. I use inexpensive shop lights with plain fluorescent tubes. I have experimented with special “gro-lights” in the past and found that there is little difference in the growth rate of plants to warrant the expense. You can try raising seedlings on a windowsill, but I don’t recommend it for two reasons. First, it must be a window that receives at least 8-10 hours of direct sunlight per day…a tall order. Second, we still have many frosty nights to go and tender seedlings can be damaged when placed too close to a cold window. I put my shop lights on a timer for 12 to 14 hours a day, with the seedlings no farther than 4 inches from the tubes. This should illustrate how critical a direct light source is at this stage of development.
    Air - One of the most common causes of seedling death is a fungal disease called “damping off”. This usually occurs when conditions are too wet and there is not enough air circulation. This disease can wipe out a whole flat of seedlings overnight, so run a table fan to keep the air moving.
     In addition to seeds that can be started indoors, there are also several common plants whose instructions recommend direct sowing in the garden “after the ground has warmed and all danger of frost has passed”. Unfortunately for us, this means the first week in JUNE. It’s hard to wait, especially if we have warm temperatures and good weather in May. But the ground takes longer to warm up than the air. Seed sown before the soil has completely warmed often will not germinate. Other times, direct sowing is recommended because that particular plant resents root disturbance and does not transplant well. 
    Bird Brainers: Spring migration will soon begin and reach its peak in May. In many species, the males arrive first to scout out a territory for breeding. Females follow shortly after.
    Butterfly Bullets: The first flush of butterfly activity in my garden usually occurs in mid May, at a time when many nectar plants are not yet blooming. So I plant a few nectar-rich, early bloomers such as columbine (aquilegia) and perennial cornflower (centaurea) for these early visitors.
    Plant Pointers: When deciding what to plant this year, remember that perennials will come back every year, but only bloom for 2 to 4 weeks. Annuals will need to be replaced each year, but will provide blooms for most of the season.

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