Five things you will need if you're planting seeds for the first time

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, March 5, 2012

JANESVILLE — Lights, warmth, tomatoes!

That's right, with the last frost date about 10 weeks away, ambitious gardeners are starting to think about seed starting.

For new or nongardeners, seed starting is just that: tucking the little guys into a special seed starting mix, popping them under artificial light, and, in many cases, applying heat.

Time's a-wasting, as grandpa used to say, so let's get right to it. Here are the top five things you need to know about seed starting.

1. Starting from scratch.

If you've never started seeds before, you'll need:

-- Soil-less potting mix. This is not the same as potting soil.

-- Pots. These could range from old yogurt containers with holes punched in the bottoms to peat pots to biodegradable pots made of cow manure.

-- A light source. Shop lights work well. For best results buy one "cool light" tube and a "warm light" tube. This will give you a broader spectrum of light. You don't need to buy one of those special bulbs marketed for plants.

-- A heat source: Many seed starting kits come with a plastic mat designed to provide just the right amount of heat.

-- The seeds of your choice. Check the back of flower and veggie seed packages. They will say something like, "Start indoors six weeks from the last frost date." In the Janesville area, the last frost date is between April 26 and May 10, according to Mike Maddox, UW Extension horticulture educator.

2. Price versus pleasure.

Yes, a package of 50 tomato seeds often is less expensive than a single tomato plant.

But add to that the cost of the basic equipment, electricity, seed starting mix, and it adds up.

"I don't think seed starting is about saving money, it think it's more about the challenge," Maddox said. "Also, I think it's about the need to be doing something. It's as much in the realm of horticulture therapy."

There's also a certain satisfaction in having coached up plants from seed, Maddox said.

3. Exotic melons and perfect peppers.

Variety and season length are the top two reasons people start flowers and vegetables from seeds.

Let's say you want to plant "Krimzon Lee," a sweet and hot pepper that Johnny's Select Seeds describes as a "paprika-type pepper that holds heat in its ribs." Or maybe you want to grow "Bianca," an ivory colored pepper that ripens to scarlet red.

Even with garden centers now carrying a wider variety of heirloom plants, there will be plants you'll only find as seeds.

"Your local garden center can't carry it all," Maddox said.

That's especially true of new varieties.

Some plants, such as peppers, melons and squash, need a head start on the growing season. For example, Krimzon Lee takes 62 days to turn green and 85 to turn red. That means you'll need every minute of June, July and August to get red peppers. Now consider how fickle Wisconsin summers can be, and give yourself some leeway.

A birdhouse gourd needs 125 days to mature.

Hint: In some cases, "65 days" can mean from the time the seed goes into the ground. Other times it means 65 days after the transplanted seedling goes into the ground.

Contact the seed catalog or ask nursery staff if it's not clear.

4. What works, what does not.

Some plants resent being transplanted, making them more difficult to start from seed. Melons are a good example.

Here's the best plan for sensitive plants: Start them in biodegradable pots. CowPots, or another brand of pots made from dried manure work best.

Traditional peat pots can work, too. However, it's best to use larger pots so that when you transplant the melons, you can gently peel off the bottom of the pot without disturbing the soil or roots.

Peat pots degrade, but they take a surprisingly long time. And while they're degrading, the peat wicks the water away from the roots.

Don't bother starting beans or peas. Peas can be planted outside as early as April 15. Beans are a short season crop and take off as soon as you put them in the ground. Same goes for veggies such as leaf lettuce, spinach and Chinese cabbage.

5. Patience versus enthusiasm.

The most important part of seed starting is the "hardening off" process, Maddox said.

Hardening off is the process of getting plants that were grown in a windless room at a controlled temperature with a particular amount of light into the outdoors where they will be subject to everything from a breeze to a tempest, changing temperatures and the intense light of the sun.

Chose a mild day to set seedlings out. Put them in a sheltered area for about two hours and then bring them back indoors.

Each day, increase the time outside on mild days. Decrease the amount of watering, but don't allow the seedlings to wilt.

After transplanting into the garden, give the new plants a mild fertilizer solution.

Last updated: 8:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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