It might still be winter outside, but inside it’s time to plant.
It’s hard to believe when you look outdoors, but it’s less than two months until May, when the danger of frost finally disappears and growing season officially begins — although it will probably feel like 50-some long, excruciating days of torture if you are a gardener.
So yield to temptation and purchase a few of those alluring seed packets at the store.
Planting from seeds isn’t hard, said John Porter of Nebraska Extension. He loves it, although he has a head start after doing his master’s work in plant propagation.
“One of my favorite parts was starting new plants,” he said.
Apparently others like it, too, because seed sales are thriving.
“The number of people growing fruits and vegetables is increasing,” Porter said. “It’s actually a generational thing. The number of millennials who are gardening has increased, but they’re growing mainly fruits and vegetables.”
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Planting seeds not only gives you a jump on the gardening season, it can be cheaper than buying plants and offer greater variety.
Just don’t go crazy buying equipment until you are sure this method is for you. It can be challenging for rookies.
Porter took some time from his seed planting to answer a few questions.
Q: Where do you start?
A: The first thing is to buy your seeds. Check out the packet for information, such as how many weeks before the last frost date you need to start. Count back from that date, and proceed if it’s in the ballpark for when you need to start. If you have too many seeds to plant, the freezer is the best place to store them. It is dry, as well. Or get together with friends and neighbors and share seeds. I see that a lot in the farming community.
Q: Are some seeds easier to plant than others?
A: Some of the easiest stuff would be like squash and cucumbers. Tomatoes aren’t too difficult. They are usually people’s first seed-starting adventures. People grow way more tomatoes than anything else.
Q: What do I plant the seeds in?
A: I always recommend using the seed starting mix because it’s sterile, which is important. If you use potting or garden soil or compost, there can be some fungal diseases in there that will kill the seedling or cause it to decompose. You can use lot of different containers. Some like to buy black plastic trays with individual cells. Or you can use yogurt containers or takeout containers. I recommend people not start their seeds in individual containers, but sewing multiple ones in bigger containers. You transplant to individual containers after they have come up.
Q: When would you move them to an individual container?
A: Once they get their first set of true leaves. The first two little leaves, those are the seed leaves. Once they get their second set — it looks more like a mature leaf — that’s when you transplant. Work it loose from the soil, using a spoon or chopstick. Pull it up by the leaves. Leaves can regrow, but if you crush the stem, it cannot. Move them over to a smaller container with potting soil at the same depth. It can be a process that requires some skill and a gentle touch. But they are not as delicate as some people think they are.
Q: Why do you need to move them anyhow?
A: You can leave them in a seed starting mix, but there is no fertility in there. There’s not enough nutrition. You would have to really heavily fertilize them. If you start more than you need, share them with friends and colleagues. We do that here at the office all the time.
Q: Why is temperature so important?
A: Starting them at the right temperature gets them germinating faster. The faster you can get them germinating, the faster you get success. Around 75 degrees is the temperature you want to get going at maximum speed. Going warmer doesn’t mean more success. After you’ve transplanted them, putting them at 65 degrees or less will keep them from getting as leggy. You want the growth to be slower so they’ll be stronger and more compact.
Q: Do you have to have a light source to be successful?
A: Most things germinate without light. Wait until they are going to give them light. In the beginning, the key factor is temperature. It can be a darker place, but it but needs to be a warmer place. The warmest place in your house is actually on top of your refrigerator. Or you can invest in a seed warmer. It’s basically like a heating pad for plants. Once they’ve been transplanted, make sure they are getting light.
Q: How do I move them outside?
A: Once it’s getting closer to planting time, you want to move them outside to harden them off. It’s a very stark difference between inside and outside. Inside is low light and high humidity, and outside is high light and low humidity. Evenings are too cold to leave them outside. Take them out during the day and bring them in at night. If you have a protected area up against the foundation of the house that releases heat overnight, you could leave them out in that protected area. Do that for a week or two.
Q: Is there anything that is critical to the success of your baby plants?
A: How often you water them. Keep them moist, but not wet. I guess that’s one of the arts of seed starting. If you keep the soil too wet, that can result in root damage and disease. Let the soil dry slightly between waterings.
Q: How do you finally plant them outside?
A: Once you’ve determined that the temperatures are stable and warm enough not to damage your plants and you’ve hardened them off, feel free to plant them. You’ll want to break up the roots so they’ll expand outward — but that action plus the transition will cause your plant to undergo a little shock.
You’ll want to water them well and keep an eye on them for a week or so — they’re especially sensitive to drying out, extreme temperatures and even high sunlight levels and wind until they’ve had time to establish their roots. You might notice a little wilting or yellowing, but keeping them watered can help get them established and growing in no time.