The loyal reader knows I am a firm believer that you are not really a gardener unless you start from seed at least one of the plants in your garden. Sure, you can buy a tomato plant that is full-grown and already blossoming, but where is the fun in that? Gardening is about the process of growing, not just the moment of harvest.
We are starting the indoor part of our Alaskan garden season. This is when we start seeds. Fortunately for the novice, starting seeds is really easy. Really easy! All you need are the right seeds, the proper soil and adequate light. Oh, you will also need a tip-off as to when to start them. Starting this week, you will find these in the calendar that always accompanies this column.
Start with the seeds. The directions are always on the back of the seed’s packet. Follow them. Which ones are right for beginners? Look for one or two that take the shortest time to germinate. These will be the easiest to start and get growing.
Next, you need a suitable container. It must be deep enough for the young roots, 2 to 3 inches minimum. It also must allow drainage from the bottom, so the seeds and roots won’t sit in water and rot. It might make sense to buy cell packs and flats. These “fit” together and won’t take up as much space as homemade trays.
Large seeds are the easiest, and great to plant with younger gardeners because they can hold them between their fingers. These should be planted into individual containers between 2 to 4 inches or so across. Smaller seeds are best grown together in a single container, spread out or in rows. Once they develop a set of leaves, carefully transplant to bigger, individual quarters, or directly into the garden if it is time.
One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is using so-called “sterile” soil to prevent damping off, a fungal disease that suddenly destroys the stems of young seedlings. In addition to adequate ventilation — add a small desk fan to your list of equipment if you don’t have air movement — seedlings need a complete range of microbes to break down organic matter, provide nutrients, create and maintain soil structure and keep pathogens in check.
While you could make your own seed starting mix using two parts compost with one part rice hulls, vermiculite and/or perlite to assist with drainage, it makes sense to buy a bag of starting soil specifically mixed for the chore. It isn’t that expensive, especially when you consider your crops’ health.
Don’t “sterilize” seeds with anything, either. Seeds carry bacteria that help in germination and hop into the soil to help with growth. For this reason, don’t start large seeds between damp paper towels. The bacteria in seeds is supposed to populate the soil they grow in, which they won’t if they are on the paper towel.
Here in Alaska, there really isn’t enough light until April, so get a set of grow lights! Once germination takes place, it is best to grow seedlings in a cool location. Good light and cool temperatures ensure seedlings won’t get spindly,
Finally, you need to label your crop so you know what you are growing. The label should include the type of seed, when they were planted and where the seeds came from, so you can reorder next year if you are successful this year. Use a permanent marker.
Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar:
The Alaska Botanical Garden’s annual spring garden conference will be held virtually this year on Friday-Saturday March 11-12. Check alaskabg.org for details and registration, as well as information about membership, summer camp and spring workshops.
Vegetable seeds to start: Celery. If you have room, you can start indeterminate tomatoes
Flower seeds to start: Sweet peas, though you can also wait until April.