Reeser Manley: Act now to allow soil a second chance to yield

Posted July 26, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 8:09 p.m.

For gardeners interested in growing transplants of heirloom vegetables — those flavor-rich varieties found only in specialty seed catalogs — and those who believe that homegrown transplants of any ilk are far superior to nursery-grown, the gardening season starts soon, as early as late February.

There may be 3 feet of snow outside, but on a table in the corner of the dining room will soon be plastic trays lined up under fluorescent lights, only 2 inches of space between the bulbs and pots of damp soil. The lights hang from chains on frames made of PVC pipe, and they can be raised as the seedlings grow, keeping the light as close as possible to developing leaves.

So begin two months of indoor gardening, of watering, fertilizing, transplanting, adjusting lights, moving trays of plants to and from the outdoors, until finally the sturdy little transplants are set out in the garden beds. When asked why you are going to all of this effort when the garden centers will soon be filled with ready-to-plant transplants, you give the only honest answer. Either start gardening indoors in February or go insane.

Experience sets the schedule if you have been growing your own transplants for years. Newcomers should rely on the seed catalogs for planning information. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has made this planning process easy with an online calculator (www.johnnyseeds.com). Click on “seed-starting calculator” and enter the date of last frost for your area. For the Ellsworth area, I enter May 15. The calculator will give you sowing dates for most crops.

Despite the incipient insanity, don’t start too early! The resulting pot-bound, leggy transplants will remain stunted after planting in the garden and produce poorly.

Here are some keys to success in growing your own:

  • Seeds planted in cold, wet soils tend to germinate slowly if at all. Reduce the germination time with bottom heat, maintaining a soil temperature between 65 and 70 degrees. Heating mats and soil thermometers are available from mail-order garden supply houses.
  • Use a sterile growing mix with a starter nutrient charge and a wetting agent. I recommend both Fafard #2 and Pro Mix. Wet the mix ahead of use to the moisture content of a wrung-out sponge.
  • Use new or sterilized 2- to 3-inch peat pots or cell packs with similar size cells. Seeds and seedlings stay too wet for too long in larger pots.
  • Sow two to three seeds per pot or cell, planning to thin to the sturdiest seedling after the first set of true leaves develop. (Don’t mistake the early leaflike “seed leaves,” or cotyledons, for true leaves.) When thinning, remove unwanted seedlings by cutting them at the soil surface rather than pulling them out.
  • Sow the seeds on the surface of the growing mix and cover with a thin layer (about twice the diameter of the seed) of a fine-textured germinating mix such as Ready-Earth. Particles in the courser growing mix can impede germination when used to cover small seed.
  • Cover the pots or cell packs with a loose layer of clear plastic (shrink-wrap works well) to maintain uniform moisture.
  • Once the seeds have germinated, remove the cover and the bottom heat. Optimum growing temperatures, both in the air and soil, are 65 degrees during the day, 60 degrees at night.
  • Provide supplemental lighting as soon as the seedlings emerge; window light alone is too low in both duration and intensity. Standard fluorescent tubes are adequate. Keep the lights on for 14 hours each day, maintaining the tubes 2- to 4-inches above the growing seedlings.
  • Water the pots gently and thoroughly on planting day, then as often as necessary to avoid excessive drying. Be careful, however, not to keep them too wet; let the surface of the soil dry between watering. When you do water, use a half-strength solution of water-soluble fertilizer to provide essential nutrients. Water from above to leach excess nutrients from the pot.
  • Before transplanting your seedlings to the garden, they must be hardened off with a slow transition to outdoor conditions. Begin by setting them outside (temperature above 45 degrees) in partial shade for one of two hours per day, gradually increasing both the light and the length of exposure over a two-week period.

So, fellow gardeners, just a few more weeks. Get those seeds ordered and let the growing season begin!

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number

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