Ready, Set, Start Growing Seedlings
By Jennifer Zeitz
One year ago I took the plunge and began growing my own vegetable transplants. Even though this requires more time and attention than picking up tomatoes and peppers at my local nursery the rewards are much greater.
Many may be asking, “Why would I want to grow my own flower and/or vegetable transplants?” Two main reasons influenced my decision. The first was cost. I was able to grow thirty-three heirloom tomato plants last year. I purchased three seed packs for a total cost of $8.25. We did build our own light system plus I purchased a smaller commercially-made system. Since I consider these investments I will not include them in the total cost. In addition I had my own seed trays from previous growing seasons. I did purchase peat pellets, peat pots and seed starting mix. The total cost for those items was approximately $15.00. So, to make my own transplants my cost was about $25.00. If I had purchased those same tomatoes as transplants, I would have spent $82.50 plus shipping. The second reason I grow my own seedlings is that I have a larger choice in the variety of vegetables that I grow. I cannot purchase the heirloom varieties that I desire to grow from my local garden center or nursery.
Now that we have decided to grow our own transplants, let’s gather some basic supplies to get started.
First decide what seeds you will be growing. Chose vegetables that you and your family enjoy or flowers you like. There will be more on seeds later. You will need some type of container to hold your soil and seedlings. I had seed trays available from previous years. That was an easy choice for me. If you don’t have seed trays you can either purchase some or use various household containers. Those clear plastic clamshell containers from take-out salad bars are known to work well, and they have an advantage in that they contain their own covers. The biggest concern with household containers is depth. The container needs to be deep enough to develop strong roots. Many authors dissuade the use of egg cartons for this reason. Also, if you chose to use household containers you will need to cover them during the germination period. Remember to put holes in the bottom of the containers for drainage.
Once you have settled on your containers, it is time to consider soil. Most experts recommend using a seed starting mix as opposed to garden or potting soil. Potting soil retains too much moisture, and garden soil can carry diseases which will undermine your seed starting efforts. I chose to start with peat pellets. These hard discs become little pots once they are exposed to water. It is important to monitor the moisture frequently if you use these little pots as they can dry out quickly. After the first true leaves appear, I move the pellets into larger peat pots. Some compost or sterile garden soil can be used at this point because the plant will start to get its nutrients from the soil.
Your transplants will need light once they germinate. After germination, covering the seedlings is no longer necessary. So, it is time to remove the cover and get them some light. Some individuals will tell you that a good sunny, south facing window is all you need to get your seedlings growing. Personally I do not favor such methods because the light is not direct enough nor does it last long enough. Your transplants will require at least 16 hours of light per day. At this time of year the sun is not reliable either as we often have rainy and cloudy days. I chose to use fluorescent lights to grow my transplants. I can adjust the distance of the light from the plant, and I can keep the light going long after the sun has gone down at night. You can purchase commercially-made light systems from garden catalogs and supply centers, or you can make your own. At first I was not sure how to go about making my own, but my cleaver husband came up with a design. We used 2x4’s, saw horse brackets, a fluorescent shop light with chains and hooks. I purchased my materials at the local home improvement store for about $35. A commercial light system will be about $70+ for the smallest model.
I just sat down last evening and planned out which seeds I need to start growing now. I am in zone 5, so I know that I need to start my peppers, cabbage, and catnip. In about ten days, I will start my tomatoes, marigolds, lettuce, and basil. Finally, about May 1st I will start my watermelons and squash. If you are in zones 6 and higher, it might be a little late for some plants to be started as seedlings. I recommend reading your seed packets carefully, paying attention to your zone, and determining when the last frost date is for your area. I do best when I write all these things down in a spiral notebook that I keep just for garden planning. If you are unsure of your zone or last frost date, these can be easily found through an internet search.
Not all plants should be started indoors. Peas, corn, beans, and root crops are seeded directly in the ground. Some common seeds to begin indoors are peppers, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, watermelon, squash, pumpkins, onion, lettuce, and various herbs. There are flower varieties that are also started indoors, but generally speaking, my experience has been with vegetables. I plant each peat pellet with two seeds. This allows for some germination failure. When starting my seeds, I set my seed trays out on tables in my living room. I use a heat mat to increase the temperatures in my seed trays. Seeds must be covered to help retain heat and moisture. My trays have plastic covers, but plastic wrap can work just as well. Once the seeds germinate and the covers are removed, and then the trays go under the lights.
Once seedlings have been placed under grow lights, the soil moisture needs to be monitored regularly. When the first true leaves appear the little seedlings can be transplanted to bigger pots. At this point it will be necessary to thin each pellet to one seedling per pellet. I usually use a scissors and snip off the weaker plant at the soil line. As the seedlings grow, they will use up the food supplied by the seed and need fertilization. I use fish emulsion at half strength. Last year I set out some pretty sad looking pepper plants. I wasn’t even sure they would survive after I planted them in the ground. I believe that they were under fertilized. This year I am going to try planting the first transplant into some quality garden compost mix and monitor the fertilization. As the plants grow continue to grow maintain light on them each day until it is time to move them outside.
Before setting your plants in the ground they need to be hardened off. Hardening off is a process of gradually exposing your seedlings to outside conditions. I actually begin this process indoors by placing my plants in front of an open, sunny window or patio door. Then I move them out to the patio steps. If you have a cold frame, this would be ideal. This process should begin about a week before the plants will go in the ground. Keep an eye on the forecast and bring them in if they temperatures are going to take a dip or close your cold frame. Finally, before you transplant, water them thoroughly. If you are using peat pots, these can be planted directly in the ground, but you need to tear down the sides and remove the bottom in order for the roots to spread.
I wish you all the best in your seed starting efforts. If you wish to read more, I would recommend checking out The New Seed Starter's Handbook by Nancy Bubel from your local library.
About the Author: Jennifer Zeitz lives in West Seneca, NY with her husband David of 14 years and their four children: Jonathan(11), Natalie( 9), Carolyn(6), and Brianna(6). Jennifer has been home schooling since 2000. She spends most of her days learning along side her children as they sew, garden, cook, and manage their home together.
In the Garden
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