Considerations for Early-Season Vegetable Starts
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Seed companies have gotten very clever with their marketing strategies. See something you’ve never tried before and are compelled to try because of the packet? You look around the carousel and you can’t help becoming infatuated with the beautiful vegetables and fruits. They look so good and so possible. You can just see them growing in your vegetable garden, so, of course, you take them home. This leads to a cascade of purchases if you don’t already have seed-starting trays (P.S. they can be reused from year to year!) and potting media. The ‘seed-starting kits’ from major companies make it all seem so easy.
There are still things you need to know beyond the pretty packaging! You need to consider what growing conditions you have at your home. If you do not have a bright window or a greenhouse, you may have to construct a seed-starting setup. Seedlings need warmth, nutrition, consistent light and a healthy measure of moisture and air movement. This last part can be a tricky line to balance on, because air movement can dry out seedlings, but overwatering brings on a whole host of other issues.
You can feel so accomplished when you see your seedlings pop up out of the soil, but it can turn to tragedy when they begin to rot in the tray. Starting with clean seed trays, mostly sterile potting media and a sterile growing area are critical to
avoiding ‘dampening off’ diseases.
If you are buying brand new trays or new, commercial potting media, you should be okay. The issues can start if you are using old potting media that has been sitting around for too long or trays that have been sitting in the back of the yard. Seed-starting mix that is more than a year old or potting media that is wet and soggy should be put in the compost pile and not used for starting seeds. Reused trays can be rinsed with a bleach solution to sterilize the surface. One tablespoon of household chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of clean water should be enough. Any surface around the seedling flats should be cleaned before putting the trays in the area.
Air Movement and Water
Moisture control is the most important element in growing plants of any kind. It is even more important when it comes to seedlings. Remember seedlings are baby plants that do not have the defense systems of older, more mature plants of the same kind. There are fungi that thrive under the various conditions that we create when trying to grow seeds: species of Rhizoctonia, Pythium, Fusarium, Phytophthora, Sclerotinia, Sclerotium, Botrytis, and others. These germinating plants are vulnerable to attack by these fungi, especially if they are weak and stressed due to unfavorable growing conditions. Species of Pythium, Sclerotinia, and Phytophthora are more likely to cause damping-off in cool, wet soils; whereas species of Rhizoctonia, Fusarium and Sclerotium rolfsii may cause damping-off under warmer and drier conditions (NCSU 2020).
Make sure you do not allow water to stand in the collection tray under the seedling tray for too long, and wait between waterings until the soil is almost dry to the touch. You do not want to let the soil dry out completely though! Be careful of even the slightest drafts for the first few weeks of growth, as they can dry out the small seedlings. After a few weeks when the plants are a couple inches tall introduce a fan set on the lowest setting to help them start hardening off.
At the end of the day, if you are still determined to start your vegetables from seed, go for it! There is so much reward from starting your own plants beyond getting produce. You learn so much about plants and growing environments, and you gain a greater appreciation for what goes into getting a plant from start to finish.
There is nothing wrong with admitting defeat either. Local nurseries and garden centers in Lee County grow vegetable plants for consumers every year and can do it more efficiently than most home setups. By purchasing your plants from them you are supporting their business and the local economy, AND still getting to grow your own vegetables!
Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.
Starting Seeds Indoors (from Clemson)
Starting Seeds Indoors with Tables (from Rutgers)
Starting Seeds Indoors Organized (University of Minnesota)