Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
Extension Educator, Horticulture
February 23, 2009
It's now approaching early March. The temperature is still downright cold some days and the days are still short, but, it is time to plan for starting your own transplants. There are quite a few details to begin your own transplants. Starting your own will only pay benefits for you if you want to transplant several plants, otherwise the seed cost (and it has gone up this year) may be more than a four-pack of plants. Of course, some people just enjoy raising their own from seed, or you do it to make sure you get a variety you want.
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, and tomato would be started about March 25. Cucumber, muskmelon, and watermelon are started as early as April 15. The rule of thumb is to allow about six weeks before you want to set the plants outside.
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. For small individual, or sectioned, containers, it is common to plant two seeds per section. 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 as seeding directly into a garden. 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, to be 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 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. Lamps should be about 12 inches away from plant leaves.
Before your starts are transplanted 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. Remember, this process takes at least six weeks, so don't wait until the week before you are ready for transplants. Otherwise, you'll be in line buying plants.