Monday, April 13, 2015

Save Money by Starting Seeds Indoors

I'm excited to share a new opportunity I have with Virginia Gardener, as a featured blogger on the State-by-State website. I'll be posting gardening stories, recipes, and pollinator updates on this website. I'll continue to post information on this blog, as well, often supplementing the Virginia Gardener posts with more in-depth information. Here's a link to my first post, followed by some additional information on seed starting that I hope you'll find useful. Please post comments and let me know what you think, or if you have anything to add! 
Why not grow a pollinator garden this summer? 

Save Money By Starting Seeds Indoors

Have you ever wandered into a garden center intending to purchase a few seedlings and ended up with a wallet-busting wagonload of must-have plants? It happens to me all the time. Even when I plan on buying only a few perennials to even out the border, or a few vegetable seedlings to pop into the kitchen garden, the sight of all that eye candy makes my imagination run wild. Suddenly, I feel like I should purchase enough to plant in drifts, achieve four-season interest, and feed the pollinators, as well as the people.

Seeds are often situated at the front of the garden center. It’s easy to blow right past the racks and reach for the mature plants. One thing we must keep in mind, though, is that garden center plants are sometimes staged to bloom earlier than they would in nature. Vegetable seedlings sold in April may not survive a late frost. In many ways, starting plants from seed at home allows for greater choice and control of a plant’s health.

Starting plants from seed indoors is an economical and rewarding endeavor. Perusing seed catalogs or garden center seed racks allows time for planning a multi-season garden, and also offers the opportunity to try new or unusual varieties. Seeds are far less expensive than mature plants, and one seed packet will usually provide more than enough abundance to fill a need.

While it’s ideal to choose seeds and plan the garden in late winter, April is not too late to think about starting seeds for late spring or early summer planting. Tender vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants need 5-7 weeks to germinate and grow into seedlings before they’re planted outdoors. They should not be planted outdoors until night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. In Virginia’s three regions, the last killing frost may occur as late as April 21 in the Tidewater area, April 30 in the Piedmont area, and May 15 in the mountain area. However, it may take several more weeks for temperatures to warm enough for tender seedlings to survive in the ground. For example, in the Piedmont area, we typically plant tomatoes in the ground around Mother’s Day. Refer to this somewhat confusing publication from the Virginia Cooperative Extension to determine the best planting dates in your area.

If you live in one of the colder regions, it’s not too late to start seeds indoors. Late-blooming perennials can also be started around this time of year. Why not plan a butterfly or pollinator garden, and save some money by starting it indoors? Try starting milkweed, aster, borage, coneflower, and coreopsis for a rainbow of pollinator-friendly color.

Here are a few simple steps to get you started with seed starting:

My husband built this light stand, using a basic shelf set-up.
Extension cords drop behind it, to allow for multiple lights and heat pads.

  1. A good light source is essential. A bright window with southern exposure may provide enough warmth and brightness, but too little light will result in weak, leggy seedlings. A fluorescent light stand with one warm and one cool bulb works well and is easy to set up. It can be a comprised of a simple shop light fixed over a tabletop, or a grow light made specificallyfor seed starting. I use a timer to provide 12 hours of light at first, with the lights set just a few inches above the seed trays.
    Moisten seed starting mix in a bucket
    before adding it to the planting container.
  2. Next, you’ll need a sterile, soilless mix containing 50% peat and 50% perlite. Soilless seed starting mixes can also be purchased. Seeds don’t need rich garden soil until they’ve emerged. All of the nutrients for germination are contained within the seed. 
  3. Moisten the soilless mixture before putting in the planting tray. The soil should stick together, but not feel muddy or loose. Spread it evenly in the planting container. Drop 2-3 seeds in each cell, gently covering them with the soilless mix. Check the seed packet for appropriate planting depth.
  4. Cover the tray with cellophane wrap or a plastic cover. Water will soon condense on the top cover, providing all the moisture the seeds will need until they emerge. Remove the cover as soon as the seeds emerge.
    Label the seedlings as soon as you plant them.
  5. When the first true leaves appear, transplant the young sprouts to small containers filled with enriched potting mix.
  6. Avoid overwatering the seedlings. Use a spray bottle to keep the soil evenly moist, or water the trays from the bottom. Raise the light source so that is about 2 inches above the plants, and gradually reduce the length of light until it’s about 10 hours per day.
    Transplant to an enriched soil when the seedlings have 2 true leaves.
  7. When seedlings are 5-7 weeks old, begin to harden them off by setting them outdoors, in a shaded location, for several hours a day. After 4-6 days, they’ll be ready to plant in the ground.
  8. It’s best to plant on a cloudy day, to avoid scorching early on. Carefully water, weed, watch your garden grow!

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