Tips for Starting Seeds Successfully This Spring
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It really feels like spring is around the corner! If you are a gardener like myself, I bet you are itching to get outside and start gardening for this year. With all the seed catalogs arriving in the mail, the garden stores shelves full of seed packets and the huge seed selections online, you cannot help but daydream about the potential of your future garden. In fact, now is the time to start gearing up! We are six weeks away from the last predicted frost date in our area (April 15), so now is the perfect time to start sowing seeds indoors for the spring and summer. Starting your own plants from seeds is typically less expensive than buying plants, allows you to access more varieties of plants, and can give you a jumpstart to get ahead of pests and diseases that appear in the garden typically later in the year.
Selecting and storing seeds
Selecting which seeds to use for your garden can be challenging. Are the ones you have from last year still fine to use? Fortunately, our Extension office has resources to help you determine whether to use your older seeds or if it might be best to order new ones. Plant seeds differ in the number of years they remain viable, or are able to germinate and survive. For example, seeds from parsley or parsnips are expected to be viable for only one year, while others like tomatoes and squash can last closer to four years. Check your seed packet, as oftentimes they will have a date on them for the year they were packaged so you can see how old they are. Please note that these recommendations are based on you properly storing your seeds. When not using, keep your seeds in a cool, dry location around 40 ℉ (like a garage or refrigerator). If they are in paper packages, we recommend storing them in airtight containers.
If you decide to purchase seeds, select varieties that are well-adapted to our area (for example, tolerant to extreme temperatures and high humidity) and those that mature early to get ahead of pests and disease. You can check with your local Extension office to determine what varieties are well-suited to your area. Your seed catalogs and seeds packets are excellent guides as well, and are full of valuable information to help you estimate the amount of time until harvest and how to specifically care for your plant (spacing and depth for planting, light requirements, etc.).
Make a plan and sow your seeds
Once you have your seeds, you can use a planting calendar to determine when to sow seeds for different plants. Start with the planting date for your specific plant and then calculate backwards to determine when to sow them indoors. For most seeds, you can start sowing 6 to 8 weeks before you want to transplant them in the garden. There are many options for containers, but all need to have holes in the bottom for drainage. You can use either cell packs, trays, or flats you can find at garden stores or reuse plastic containers or milk jugs. For your planting media, we recommend using a soil-less seed starting mix, which is well-aerated and should be free from insects, pathogens, or weeds. Make sure to wet the media (but not soak) before adding your seeds. Check your seed packet to see how deep to plant and whether your seeds need light or darkness to germinate, as this varies between plants. Once you are done sowing, finely mist your plants and cover with a plastic bag or dome to keep the media moist until the first seedlings appear. Bottom heating is also a good option, as it can increase germination rate and help prevent “damping off,” caused by pathogens on the surface of potting mix that can kill young plants.
Seedling plant care
There are extensive resources for seed care available, so we will briefly touch on general tips for keeping your seedlings healthy. For watering, the key is keeping the media wet but not soaked. Once your seeds have germinated, provide them enough light to prevent them from becoming elongated by either placing them next to a south-facing window or setting up grow lights over the plants (ex. fluorescent bulbs). Position the lights within a couple inches of the plants and adjust as the plants grow taller, making sure to give them 12-16 hours of light a day (you can plug them into a timer to make this easy). Seedlings do not need fertilizer until their first true leaves appear (they look different from the seed leaves, which will show up first). After this, seedlings in soil-less media without fertilizer benefit from diluted water-soluble fertilizer added to water once a week. Make sure to check the rate on the fertilizer, as too high a concentration can burn seedlings. When your plants get their true leaves, transplant them to a large container by gently loosening the media and handling by the leaves (not the delicate stem).
Graduating to the great outdoors
One to two weeks before your plants are ready to go out in the garden, it is important to acclimate them gradually to the outside, which is also known as “hardening off.” Start by placing your plants outside on a warm day (45-50℉) in the shade for a few hours and increase their time and exposure to sunlight gradually. It is important not to rush this process, as the plants can get scorched by sun and wind and even die otherwise. The gradual process helps plants strengthen slowly so that they can survive outside in the full sun when it is time to plant them in the ground.
There are some tips and tricks to get you started for this gardening season! For more information on seed starting, please contact N.C. Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center office and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.