Gardeners, are you longing to get your hands in the soil as you browse through seed catalogues and gardening magazines?
If you have been planting the same varieties of annual flowers, herbs and vegetables, this could be the year to try your hand at starting your own bedding plants from seed. There is no need to invest in expensive equipment, but there are some important requirements that need to be met in order to have success.
Containers for starting seeds come in a wide range of materials and sizes -- plastic, peat, coir and wood fibre. Recyclable containers can also be used so long as they have been thoroughly washed and have good drainage holes.
Use containers that hold at least three to 7.6 centimetres of soil for small seeds and deeper containers for large seeds, especially for plants such as cosmos, lavatera and morning glory that do not like to have their roots disturbed.
Use a sterile, light, planting medium such as a soil-less starting mix, which can be purchased at most garden centres. Peat or coir pellets can also be used.
Sufficient and consistent light is vital for growing sturdy, healthy plants. Since we do not receive enough sunlight in our northern region to provide a reliable source of light for seedlings, an option is to use horizontal, cool-white fluorescent lights. You can also purchase full-spectrum or T-5 grow lights, but they are more expensive.
Plants must be kept close to the light source, so devise a method to raise the lights as they grow. A timer can be helpful, as the fluorescent lights need to be on for 14 to 16 hours daily.
The choices of plants that can be grown can be overwhelming. If you are a beginner, start small. Not all the seeds in the package need to be planted. Most can be saved for up to three years if properly stored.
The cost of seeds and shipping can add up, so share orders with some of your gardening friends. Buy from a reliable seed company that provides clear descriptions and instructions. If you are getting seeds through a seed exchange, ask whether any are from hybrid plants. If so, there's a chance they may not germinate or they may produce plants that are different from the source plant.
Once you have obtained your seeds, carefully read the instructions provided on the package. For successful germination, most seeds need warm soil temperatures, so you will need to keep the seeded containers in a warm room. Peppers, for example, benefit from bottom heat, such as provided by a heat mat.
There are some seeds, such as petunias, that should not be covered with soil, as they need light to germinate, while others such as pansies need to be lightly covered and put in the dark until they germinate.
A small number of seeds, mostly perennials, may need stratification (pre-chilling) or scarification (scuffing of surface). Some seeds germinate quickly within five days, while others may take 14 to 21 days. This must be taken into consideration when deciding when to plant.
In our region, May 25 is typically considered the beginning of frost-free days. If you count back from this date anywhere from four to eight weeks, as stated on the seed package, you will arrive at the date for indoor planting. Mid-March to mid-April fall into the appropriate range, and it is better to plant a few days later than too early.
Gradually acclimatize your bedding plants to outdoor temperatures in early May for short periods at a time to allow for the hardening-off period.
If you are planning a vegetable or herb garden, you will have to start or purchase some as bedding plants. Any crop (unless it is a root crop) that requires more than 90 days to maturity has to be first started indoors in our region. This includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage and some squash.
When you are ready to plant, gather your supplies, making sure your containers are clean, soil mix and water are at room temperature and your light source is at the correct height. Fill your containers with five to 7.6 centimetre of moderately moist soil, gently level and pat down.
It's best to plant in rows or into small impressions rather than scattering. Cover lightly (twice the thickness of seed) or press into the soil so the seed has good contact with the soil. Gently water by misting or use a kitchen baster. Label and date your containers and place ones with similar needs and germination dates together.
To conserve heat and moisture, cover your containers with a plastic dome or plastic kitchen wrap. Check your containers daily to make sure there isn't too much moisture, as this can result in the development of fungal disease (damping off).
As soon as your seeds begin to sprout, remove the plastic, but make sure the surface of the soil is kept slightly moist until all viable seeds have germinated. Next, remove any bottom heat source and lower the room temperature, but keep your light source within 7.6 to 10 centimetres of your plants.
When your seedlings have developed four true leaves, it is time to transplant them into a larger container with a heavier soil mix that contains some nutrients. Again, make sure the containers are clean and have good drainage. Try to arrange your containers on a leak-proof tray so you can water from the bottom to encourage strong root development.
Fertilize your seedlings with a diluted (one-half or less) solution of balanced fertilizer, or alternate between one that has higher phosphorus (middle number). There are many choices of fertilizer, both organic and non-organic. Cut back on watering and fertilizing once it's time to harden off your bedding plants. Your plants need to focus their energy on becoming stronger, not bigger.
There are several reasons to start your own bedding plants from seed apart from the lower cost. There are exciting varieties that may not be available from your local greenhouses. If you get together with a few friends, you can share the cost, work and plants. By starting your own bedding plants, you are learning a new gardening skill, and if you really get hooked, you may want to try winter sowing -- a great way to help get you through a prairie winter.
Inspiration from seed catalogues
Gardeners who start plants from seeds enjoy a certain advantage; while the rest of us battle withdrawal in the dim days of January, satisfying our longing by leafing through gardening magazines, seed-starters are already anticipating the first sprouts of green growth.
I take inspiration just from reading the descriptions in seed catalogues. Winnipeg's T & T Seeds catalogue, for example, describes the colour of the heirloom Black Cherry Tomato as "deep purple, mahogany brown," with a flavour that is "complex, perhaps smoky, with a sweet pop."
I long to try T & T Seeds' Cool Wave Pansy, a revolutionary new pansy that trails more than 60 centimetres long, bushier and more vigorous than the pansy most of us are familiar with. Picture it in a hanging basket!
Jeannette Adams, a master gardener and East Kildonan-area resident who is today's contributor, explains how easy it is to start with a few seeds and to indulge in a variety of flowers or vegetables we might not find anywhere else.
In addition to buying seeds, seed-saving plays an important role in maintaining our genetic diversity. Seedy Saturday events will take place in communities across Canada throughout February and March. Mark your calendars for this year's Seedy Saturday, March 9, at the Canadian Mennonite University. Event organizers Kenton Lobe and Julia LaForge look forward to welcoming everyone from seed growers to community gardeners.
"Seedy Saturday is a locally organized event where the knowledge and history held in seeds are shared with the community," says Lobe. More details are available at http://winnipegseedysaturday.wordpress.com.
It's a great chance to swap some of your favourite seeds for this year's garden.