Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
Extension Educator, Horticulture
February 29, 2008
It's now early March, it still gets cold some days, and the days are still short. But, it is time to plan for starting your own plants from seed. It often takes six to eight weeks to get plants ready to set out. There are quite a few details to begin your own transplants.
I don't know which comes first, the chicken or the egg, so I'll begin with the hardiness zone. All of Logan County lies in zone 5b, but we are on the border with 5a. What difference does this make? "About three weeks difference in seed starting date" is the answer. In zone 5b, we would want to start broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and lettuce (if that's something you want to transplant) as early as March 5. Eggplant, herbs, pepper, tomato, and almost all of your annual flowers would be planted around March 25. Cucumber, muskmelon, and watermelon should be planted as early as April 15. The rule of thumb is to allow about six weeks before you want to set the plants outside. If you are starting in a cool location such as a basement, you can usually add two to four weeks to that number.
What should you plant your seeds in? You should use a sterile growing medium. There are several kinds of soilless germinating mixes, potting soils, peat cubes, and compressed peat pellets that are available. These media are generally free from insects, diseases, and weeds. Enough fertilizer is generally present in these to allow for three or four weeks of plant growth.
As far as sowing the seeds, traditionally seeds have been put in shallow boxes in rows about two inches apart and covered lightly with vermiculite. Soon after the seeds come up, they are transplanted into other containers. An easier method is to start the seeds directly in the final growing container. The final container should match the seed (or plant) planting depth to what it would be directly seeded in a garden.
Most seeds will germinate in a growing medium temperature of 60 to 70 degrees, but the melons and eggplants like it a bit warmer. Watering and fertilizing are just as important. Water can't be too much, or too little. The medium you are using also makes a difference, as peat pellets tend to dry out quickly. Fertilizer should be in the medium for the first three to four weeks. You can add a soluble fertilizer to the water at the rate of one tablespoon per gallon, used about once a week on established seedlings. Non-fertilized water should be used between the fertilizer applications.
Vegetable plants need direct light. Natural light only goes so far in the winter and early spring months. We want to try and provide about 12 hours of light a day on these transplants. Artificial lights work well to supplement natural light, or provide all light in a basement setting. Grow light bulbs work well, but are expensive. A combination of cool white fluorescents and incandescent bulbs provides about the same light spectrum as grow lights. Lamps should be about 12 inches away from plant leaves.
Before your starts are planted outdoors, they should be hardened gradually by exposing them to outside conditions. Start by placing the plants outside a few hours a day. Use a very sheltered area to protect from direct light and winds. Gradually extend the time outdoors as planting time approaches.
February 7, 2008
Chase away the winter gardening blues. Reserve your seat today for Gardeners Day. This event will be held Saturday, March 15, 2008. Gardeners Day is presented by University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit Master Gardeners. Registration starts at 8:00 a.m. with the first seminar at 8:45 a.m. and the event concludes at 12:05 p.m.
Nine one-hour seminars will be offered in three sessions by U of I Extension specialist and local horticulture experts. Programs include: Turfgrass Maintenance, Soil Tests and Results, Different tools for gardening use and care, Composting and vermicomposting, Trees and Shrubs and their uses in the Landscape, Abiotic Stresses of Trees and Solutions, The Ins and Outs of the Ruby Throat Hummingbird, Apple Tree Grafting, and Body Smart Gardening.
Pre-registration is highly encouraged. Registration fee is $8 in advance (before March 7) and $10 at the door. The event will be at the U of I Extension Building #30, Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, IL. To request a brochure with pre-registration form call (217) 782-4617 or visit Sangamon-Menard website, www.extension.uiuc.edu/sangamonmenard.