By Kathy Ray
Spring! In Ohio, that may need several exclamation points. Miss Spring can be a fickle lady. She gives us a sneak peek and just as quickly, she takes it away. There are plenty of options though to use this time to prepare what you want to see this spring in your flower beds and vegetable gardens. You may have a stack of catalogs or emails beckoning you to plant seeds to achieve your gardening goals. Have you ever started your garden from seed? It can seem to be an intimidating procedure to take on, but here are a few tips to help you get started and to make it a family affair.
Children are fascinated that the food they eat and the flowers that show up in the planter by the door all started from tiny little seeds. And this experience can be a great way to beat the winter blues. Experienced gardeners frequently start their plants from seeds; mainly because seeds are available in more varieties than the plants you’ll find at your local garden center. If this is something where you would like to try your green thumb, involve your children. What a great learning experience for kids of all ages. They can learn so much about how and where our fruits, vegetables and flowers come from. The accomplishment they will feel cannot compare to anything. Just ask any seasoned gardener how euphoric they are when that first seed sprouts, then makes it outdoors, and ultimately grows into a beautiful flower, fruit or vegetable.
If you have been contemplating trying this, begin with easy, reliable seeds. Some of the best options include tomatoes, peppers, basil, zinnias, marigolds, and cosmos. All of these germinate readily and grow quickly. Once you accomplish these plants, try your hand at more challenging ones.
Timing is everything when planning your indoor seeds. Here are a few questions to ask. What is the average last spring frost date; do the plants you chose prefer cool or warm growing conditions; and how quickly will the seeds germinate and grow? Most seed packets include planting directions to sow seeds indoors six weeks before your average last frost date. So, when is your average last frost date? There is no definitive date. The date of the actual last spring frost varies from year to year, so this date will be an approximation. Check with your local garden center or call your Cooperative Extension office. They should be able to tell you what the date was the last few years and that will give you an average date.
Garden centers, online retailers, and gardening supply catalogs all offer seed starter kits. If you want to be economical, cardboard egg cartons or yogurt containers work perfectly for sowing seeds. If you choose the egg carton, the entire container can be planted in the ground if you use the cardboard variety. Whichever type of vessel you decide to use, make sure there is good drainage by putting a few small holes in the bottom. You can get away with not purchasing special containers, but you do need to make sure you purchase a soil that is intended for seedling growth. Regular garden soil is not recommended. Before planting, soak the seeds in water for 24 hours. Only 24 hours though, or there is a chance of rotting. Then, you are ready to plant.
Allow your children to press the seeds lightly into the appropriate medium and tamp them down easily. If you purchased a kit, install the lid on the container of planted seeds. If you chose egg cartons or yogurt containers, cover them with plastic wrap. Once you see sprouts, remove the covers. You may find you have great light for plant growth, but if you’ve never done this before, purchase a light garden. Keep the light a few inches from the sprouts. You may also wish to purchase a timer. Plants should have 14 to 16 hours of light a day to mimic what happens in the outdoors. The additional 8 to 10 hours should be darkness. If you don’t want to splurge on the timer, this can be delegated to the children to remember to turn the light on and off at the appropriate times.
Watering is usually more efficient if done from the bottom. Top misting can keep the surface moist for better germination, but allow the soil to dry out between misting. Once the plants reach a couple inches tall, you should begin fertilizing.
If you are lucky and your plants grow quickly, and Miss Spring is still being fickle, you will need to transplant them into larger pots. One of the most important steps is “hardening off” or acclimating your plants to outside weather. These seedlings are your babies and need protected a while longer. A week to 10 days before you intend to plant your seedlings into the ground, begin setting the pots outside during the day. Place them in a protected spot that is partly shaded and out of the wind. Bring them in after a few hours. Gradually expose them to more sunshine and wind.
Once transplanted, watch them carefully. It may be necessary to cover them with a light cloth or newspaper if the weather turns cold after you set them into the ground. Never use plastic to cover your plants, as it holds in the moisture and can freeze instead of protect. Allow your children to dig the holes and they can make stakes with the names of the plants on them so they can recognize which plant is what. This can be science, art, and spelling all rolled into a fun day with Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa.
Most of all, have fun. Seed packets are inexpensive, so if something goes wrong, starting over is a relatively inexpensive option. Children will enjoy spending time with you and learning, even if the outcome is less than perfect. Seed packets are filled with a plethora of knowledge. You will most likely need a magnifying glass to see the small print, but it will be informative and help you to be successful. Plant, watch, and enjoy your flowers, vegetables and children.
Author Kathy Ray is Vice President of Pond Wiser, Inc.