Every year you plan that THIS will be the year you have pots and pots of lush plants on your deck or balcony. Then you go to your local nursery in the spring and reality hits the cost for your fantasy is just outrageous! Sound familiar? But you can have the planters of your dreams at a fraction of the cost and with a choice of varieties far beyond what the local garden centre offers. How?
If youve never grown from seeds indoors before, its best to start with just a couple types. Easy starters: Trailing lobelia and petunias create a bright and easy garden for sunny spots. Zoethout plant and dwarf nasturtiums are also appealing.
Once youve decided on your crops, you must understand two things to determine when the seeds should be started: the last frost date for your area, and the time required before transplanting.
- The last frost date is the date beyond which there’s a minimal chance (usually about 10 percent) of temperatures at or below the freezing mark. This is important because many traditional plants for hanging baskets are tender, that is, they won’t survive when frozen. You might already know what the frost date is for your area. If not ask gardening neighbors or your local gardening center.
- The time required before transplanting differs for each kind of flower. Youll see this listed in seed catalogs or on the seed package. For example, a packet might let you”start indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date.” Some seeds such as nasturtiums, zinnias, or cosmos could be sown directly outside but if you must wait after the threat of a frost has passed, you might choose to get a jump on spring by starting those inside too. Licorice plants and geraniums require 12 weeks to sprout from seed. If my last frost date is May 15th, Ill want to start them around the last week of February. Petunias, impatiens and lobelia need 10-12 weeks, so I’d start them around the first of March. Morning glories, making a beautiful privacy fence from a plain piece of latticework, require six weeks from start to transplant, but cant be put out until fourteen days after the last frost date. This would mean starting them indoors about mid-April. Id begin nasturtiums and zinnias about then too. Your target is to promote germination (with heat and water) and seedling growth (with light) while preventing your seedlings chief enemy,”damping-off” (with air flow and proper drainage). Here are a few tips for effective seed growing.
- Use plastic containers, about 2″ deep, fairly wide and with multiple drainage holes. Growers mobile packs are ideal but you can also use yogurt or cottage cheese containers as long as you sanitize them with a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) for 15 minutes and then punch several holes in the bottoms.
- Use commercial seed-starting mix. Its sterilized and contains the essential food to assist germination. You may also wish to try using a product specially formulated to avoid damping-off.
- Plant seeds . Youll have to thin them anyhow. Some growers plant only two seeds per cell kettle. If youre planting in flat trays, set seeds 1/2″ to 1″ (1 to 2.5 cm) apart, depending on the seed size, and space the rows 1 1/2″ to 2″ (3-5 cm) apart. Make a depression in the soil with your finger or a pencil and plant the seed about three times as deep as its diameter. If the packet says the seed requires light to germinate, then put it only on the surface of the soil.
- Set the containers in a water-filled tray. This permits the pots to draw water from the ground without disturbing the seeds. Cover tray and pots with plastic to help hold moisture and warmth.
- Place the whole set up on a heat source between 75 – 85° F (24 – 29° C). Although a heat mat made for this purpose is perfect, you can also use the top of a refrigerator, or a place near a radiator or space heater.
- Once the seeds have germinated, remove the plastic and place the pots (with the water ) near a light source at a lower temperature. Good light is vital at this stage to ensure decent growth. Fluorescent shop lights in a few inches of the tops of the seedlings are perfectly satisfied. You can even try a sunny south window but ideally the light should be on the crops for 16 hours from every 24-hour period. In my climate, we simply dont have 16 hours of daylight this time of year! Seedlings respond best to daytime temperatures of 60 – 70° F (16 – 21°C) and night temperatures of 50 – 60° F (10 – 16°C).
- Heres where it becomes critical to avoid damping-off. One means to do this is to allow an electric fan blow gently across the surface of the soil during daylight hours. Additionally, there are specially formulated products on the marketplace that may be applied to the surface of the soil when you’re planting seeds that will help prevent damping-off from growing.
- When the seedlings have developed their first set of true leaves (not the round small germination leaves), pull all but one plant per cell. Its hard, I understand, to pull up living plants but its essential to prevent overcrowding that will kill all them.
- When the seedlings have developed their second set of true leaves, start watering them (in the bottom) with fertilizer diluted to quarter strength.
- A week or 10 days before you intend to plant them outside, start “hardening off” the tender seedlings. Stop fertilizing, and reduce the quantity of water . If at all possible, keep them in a cooler area indoors and begin introducing them into the direct sunlight and varying temperatures of the outdoors. Begin by placing the trays outside for one hour at the mid-morning or mid-afternoon ad gradually lengthen the time to several hours. Dont put them out in heavy rain or cold, strong wind and make sure you bring them inside at night.
Follow these instructions and youll have a bounty of young, strong plants to fill your hanging baskets and pots. This season, youll have the planters of your dreams!