A head start on the growing season

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The holidays are over, and we find ourselves in the cold, dark days of mid-winter. As a grower, you may feel that the planting season is so far away. Don’t worry, as you can start many plants indoors by seed soon.

Garden centers already have seeds available and will bring in more as winter wraps up. Seeds also can be found in many hardware and grocery stores. Some communities have seed swaps and seed “libraries.”

For a wider variety, find a seed company that offers the types of plants you want to grow and order a catalog or shop on its website. Seed providers that test their seeds in a growing climate similar to yours are ideal.

Carefully review the information on the seed packet, and create a chart of seed-starting and transplant dates. If you have plants that should be started 10 to 12 weeks prior to the last frost and some to start eight to 10 weeks before, a consolidated planting session at 10 weeks prior will suffice.

Before planting day arrives, gather any necessary supplies. Starting seeds does not need to be complicated or expensive. The main components are containers, planting media and a reliable artificial light source.

Garden centers have a wide selection of seeds available now for gardeners interested in starting their own seedlings indoors for transplant when the weather warms up. Photo by Amy Simone

Containers can be made of plastic, silicone, wood, peat, fiber or other materials. Most importantly, they should be sturdy, sterile, free from harmful chemicals and have drainage holes.

Choose a soilless planting medium with peat moss and perlite and/or vermiculite. When ready to plant, moisten the mix and pack it firmly into the container to within three-quarter inch of the top. If you are filling several seed flats, sometimes it is easier to pre-moisten the mix in a larger container or bucket, then move to your final container.

Sow the seeds and cover with more of your planting medium to the necessary planting depth. Moisten the soil and seeds with a spray mister, then cover with a plastic dome or plastic wrap. Be sure to label the plants.

Planted seeds need to be kept at a temperature between 65º and 75º F until they germinate. Electric heat mats are useful during this period, but another option is to keep the trays on a shelf over a heat register.

Remove the plastic from the germinated plants and place no further than six inches from a strong fluorescent or LED light. Leave the light on for 14 to 16 hours a day.

Note that once germinated, cold-weather seedlings prefer temperatures between 55º to 65º F. Moving these seedlings to a basement or sunroom is an option.

Keep the planting medium moist but not soggy. It can dry slightly between waterings, but seedlings should not be allowed to wilt.

Give the young seedlings a 50% diluted fertilizer. After that, apply full-strength fertilizer weekly.

In February, you can plant bulbing onions that are dependent on long day length. The bulbs should be transplanted outdoors four to six weeks before your last frost. This ensures that they will receive the required daylight hours for the development of large bulbs.

Cold-tolerant plants such as pansy, sweet alyssum, snapdragon, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, head lettuce, leeks, kale and collards have start dates in February and March. You can start heat-loving plants like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants from seeds indoors in March to compensate for our shorter growing season.

Once spring arrives, follow instructions on the seed packets for outdoor planting times, paying attention to dates before or after the last frost. You can find information on frost dates at https://garden.org/apps/frost-dates. Be sure to gradually acclimate your tender seedlings a week prior to transplanting them in the garden.

Enjoy this early start to the growing season.

by Amy Simone, Extension Master Gardener, UVM

Featured photo: For best results, seedlings require a reliable artificial light source for 14 to 16 hours per day. Photo by Amy Simone

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