One sure way to brighten up the remaining winter days is to start flower
and vegetable seedlings for beauty and delicious eating later this year.
Some garden plants need a long season to complete their growth; others
produce a much earlier crop if they are started indoors or in a coldframe.
Enough seedlings for a good-sized garden can be started on a south-facing
By starting your own seedlings, you can have the varieties you prefer at
just the right time. For good growth indoors, you need to mimic the
outdoor conditions in the garden a month or two later. This implies warmer
soil and perhaps extra light.
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, onions, leeks and
celery are some of the vegetables which are frequently started indoors.
Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are frost-sensitive and need a long period
of growth before they produce. Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli like to
complete their growth before the weather gets too hot, but they would grow
very slowly here in Connecticut, if they were outside in March and early
April. Onions and leeks also need a long season and must complete most of
their vertical growth before the summer solstice, when the storage bulb
begins to swell.
We'll start seedlings of onions, leeks, Brussels sprouts, celery and
slow-growing herbs very soon. In early March, it's time to plant lettuce,
pepper, broccoli, cabbage and parsley seeds. Toward the end of next month,
tomatoes, basil as well as more lettuce and peppers can be started.
Lettuce needs about a month's growth before it can be set out in early
April; broccoli and cabbage need 4-to-6 weeks growth before going outside
in late April. The heat-loving Solanaceous plants - tomatoes, peppers and
eggplants-need two months inside before they are transplanted outdoors in
mid-to-late May, after the last frost.
Timing, growing medium, light, water, temperature, and spacing are all
important considerations when we start seedlings. Vegetable plants like to
grow steadily from the time the radicle emerges, until the well-formed
transplant is set out. Attention to all of the variables is essential for
We use our best compost for starting seedlings. Although a few weeds may
germinate too, we believe the life in the compost is valuable for growing
sturdy plants. If the compost needed more air, vermiculite or perlite
could be added. Other growers suggest using a soil-less growing mixture to
provide a medium free from weeds and soil-borne diseases. After the plants
are growing well, I recommend feeding them with an organic seaweed mix.
Recycled plastic containers, or milk cartons with holes in the bottom make
good seedling pots. Larger containers store more water and nutrients and
allow ample room for roots. We've found that seedlings in "peat pots" or
small styrofoam cells tend to dry out too quickly.
Optimum soil temperature for germinating most vegetable seeds is between 65
and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with a cooler air temperature. Too much heat
(especially in dry, centrally-heated homes) causes the plants to lose water
more quickly. We slip a plastic bag over the flats to keep the seeds moist
until they germinate.
Be careful not to overwater. Too much water can cut off the air supply to
the roots and weaken the plants. It also encourages a destructive fungus
disease called "damping off."
Once they have emerged, the tiny plants need plenty of light. With too
little light or light from one side only, the seedlings will grow tall and
leggy, and bend toward the light. In a south-facing window, in may be
necessary to turn the plants regularly, or to use an overhead grow light or
a reflector in order to produce straight, sturdy transplants.
Crowded plants will be stunted. Provide enough room for spreading roots by
transplanting seedlings to larger containers or by thinning them. This
facilitates better air circulation, too.
The plants that start out on a square foot or two of windowsill in February
and March will fill 10-to-20 square feet in a cold frame in late April. By
summer, they'll occupy several hundred square feet in the garden and
produce hundreds of pounds of delicious, nourishing food.
Now that's productivity!
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "The Politics of
Food" and "Living on the Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays
Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future
is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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