Growth in gardening: From Seed or not from seed…

Growing vegetables from seed may take a little effort, but there are advantages in price, variety and quality. Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg carton compartments make good – and free – containers. PHOTO BY CANDY TALE

Are you planning to have a garden this year? Will you start your plants off from seed or seedlings? Garden-ready organic vegetable plants are on track to being the most popular option for newcomers to the world of organic gardening. At least that’s what many major suppliers of seeds are afraid is the trend. Seed catalogues and seed suppliers for big box stores have done some research and have discovered that their customer base has been getting older, while new gardeners, such as busy younger families, are attracted by the new range of baby plants, that many stores and nurseries now offer. The benefit being that they are ready to go straight into the garden – dig a hole, drop it in, instant garden. I don’t know how they know that it is the younger gardeners that are buying seedlings, but it sounds reasonable.

Growing vegetables from seed may take a little effort, but there are several advantages for the home gardener. They include the following:

  • More available varieties as seeds
  • Seeds are far less expensive
  • When you grow from seed, you are getting a known quality.

If you decide to start growing from seed, the next question that needs to be answered, is whether to start them indoors or outdoors. The answer depends on plant quantities, how much space you have to devote to indoor gardening and the length of your growing season. Another thing to think about: plants begun indoors have higher survival rates than those started outdoors. But also keep in mind that it is certainly not an all or nothing deal. You can make a case-by-case decision and start some vegetables from seed and others from seedling transplants. After all, it is your garden.

In my garden I love to start from seed. Over the years, I have learned that starting seeds properly can make or break your entire growing season.

So here are some of my tips for having success starting from seed:

  • Be seed savvy. Obtain seed catalogs from several companies and compare their offering and prices. Some of the regional companies may carry varieties better suited to our area.
  • Make a list of what you’d like to grow. A good ruleof-thumb is to imagine your garden one-quarter the size that it really is. This allows for good spacing practices!
  • Prepare for some losses. Though it’s good not to plant too much for your garden space, it’s also good to assume that some of your seeds won’t germinate, or that they will inexplicably die off later. Plant a few extra, just in case.
  • Team up with a neighbor and share seeds and harvests, if you have leftovers!
  • Don’t start your seeds too early, especially tomatoes. Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown indoors no more than 6 weeks before the last frost in your area. For the San Marcos area our last frost date is March 15th – so if you want to start from seed now is just the right time.
  • You may have to soak, scratch, or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet.
  • Use clean containers. Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg carton compartments make good containers, too. Be sure to poke holes in the sides near the bottom of the containers you use in order to allow excess water to drain.
  • Label your containers now! There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.

Growing from seeds is easy. I believe that this is because life wants to happen – I mean how else can you explain a dandelion or other plant growing out of a crack in the sidewalk? All you need to do is take a few simple steps.

  1. Fill clean containers with a potting mix made for seedlings. Use soilless peat moss and mix in equal parts vermiculite and perlite to hold enough water and allow oxygen to flow. Don’t use regular potting soil.
  2. Pour soilless mix into a large bucket and moisten with warm water. Fill your containers to just below the rim.
  3. Plant your seeds according to your seed packet. Most seeds can simply be gently pressed into the mixture; you can use the eraser end of a pencil to push in seeds. When planting seeds, plant the largest seeds in the package to get the best germination rate.
  4. Cover containers with plastic. Prick holes with a toothpick for ventilation. Water as directed.
  5. Water newly started seedlings carefully. A pitcher may let the water out too forcefully. A mist sprayer is gentle but can take a long time. Try using a meat-basting syringe, which will dispense the water effectively without causing too much soil disruption.
  6. Find a place in the kitchen where there is natural bottom heat—on top of the refrigerator or near the oven. (Move the tray if the oven is on, as it may become too hot.)
  7. Seeds sprout best at temperatures of 65°F to 75°F.
  8. When seedlings appear, remove the plastic and move containers into bright light.
  9. When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, prepare individual pots filled with a potting mix with plenty of compost. Move the seedlings carefully to the new pots and water well. Keep pots out of direct sun for a few days.

At this point it is time for “hardening off” – which is how we start to move our seedlings outside. Before transplanting seedlings to your garden, you’ll first need to prepare the seedlings for the harsh realities (i.e., climate) of the outside world! During their last week indoors, withhold fertilizer and add water less often.

Seven to 10 days before transplanting, set the seedlings outdoors in dappled shade that is protected from winds for a few hours each day, gradually increasing their exposure to full sun and windy conditions. This is the hardening-off period.

Keep the soil moist at all times during this period. Dry air and spring breezes can result in rapid transpiration. If possible, transplant on overcast days or in the early morning, when the sun won’t be too harsh.

After the hardening-off period, your seedlings are ready for transplanting. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when transplanting:

  • Set transplants into loose, well-aerated soil. Such soil will capture and retain moisture, drain well, and allow easy penetration by seedling roots.
  • Soak the soil around new seedlings immediately after transplanting.
  • Spread mulch to reduce soil moisture loss and to control weeds.
  • To ensure the availability of phosphorus in the root zone of new transplants (phosphorus promotes strong root development), mix 2 tablespoons of a 15-30-15 starter fertilizer into a gallon of water (1 tablespoon for vining crops such as melons and cucumbers), and give each seedling a cup of the solution after transplanting. Or…

Give your new transplants a tea party. Compost tea, that is. Compost tea is a liquid gold fertilizer for flowers, vegetables and houseplants. Compost tea, in fact, is all the rave for gardeners who repeatedly attest to higher quality vegetables, flowers and foliage. Very simply, it is a liquid, nutritionally-rich, well-balanced, organic supplement made by steeping aged compost in water. But its value is amazing, for it acts as a very mild, organic liquid fertilizer when added at any time of the year. Join me here next week where I will cover more on compost tea.

-- Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Daily Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666