potting mix has composted bark, peat moss or peat humus added to loamy
soil. Gardeners usually add ingredients to customize mixes - like extra
peat moss, sand, perlite, etc.
Ready-to-use premium mix contains similar material but in
different proportions. More bark and peat and less soil make it lighter.
Perlite and vermiculite give it better drainage and aeration. Many
contain a wetting agent for uniform water distribution. Some are billed
as "soiless mixes" - these can be the safest to use because
they will not harbor fungi or bacteria, but you must fertilize because
there are NO soil nutrients in them!
Professional mix has the same materials as the premium types
but is more finely processed. It works well for starting seeds or
transplanting delicate seedlings.
Plant-specific mixes are used when you have a certain
plant in mind with special requirements. Orchid, African violet and
Cactus are just a few of the special mixes available.
plants need light to grow, but young seedlings will benefit from more
intense light than adult plants. You can raise seedlings on a shelf or
windowsill in a sunny, south-facing window with good results. You do
have to remember to keep rotating the plants in the flats a quarter turn
every day or seedlings will keep growing toward the window and get
You'll have healthier, less spindly
plants if you can provide some supplemental light. Although they provide
excellent lighting for plants, expensive, full-spectrum growth lights
aren't necessary. Ordinary fluorescent tubes will work just fine
if you use one warm-white and one cool-white bulb. Hang a two-bulb shop
light fixture with a reflective hood over the bulbs. The fixtures and
bulbs can both be bought inexpensively at home-supply stores. The
height must be adjustable to keep the lights 2 inches or less above the
tops of the plants at all times.
Plants need periods of darkness as much
as they need light to grow and develop. For young seedlings, a cycle of
18 hours light and six hours dark is ideal. Use an inexpensive timer set
to come on at or before sunrise, and off at or after sunset.
creative - you don't have to buy those plastic trays with the domed lids
and the inserts for them. Plastic or metal containers with clear
Tomato Seedlings Right!
To make sure your tomato plants are well
anchored, you should bury their stems up to the lowest leaves. Pastor
Mustard plants his tomatoes the right way from the start - odd looking,
but effective. Use deep containers, such as frozen concentrate juice or
Poke drainage holes in the bottom of a clean
can. Then fill the can about half full of potting soil and add a seed
(see illustration 1). As the plant grows, keep adding more and more
potting soil to encourage root development (see illustrations 2
and 3). Finally, when it's time to transplant, simply take off the
bottoms of the cans and push out the plants.
Peppers also benefit from deep rooting,
but do not require the depths that tomatoes do. Usually, just planting
them slightly deeper should do the trick.
and Hardening Off
Seeds store enough nutrients
to germinate and grow cotyledons - leaf-like structures also called seed
leaves, that are different from the true leaves the plants have in their
After one set of true leaves
emerges, fertilize seedlings twice a week with a balanced,
water-soluble fertilizer at half the strength indicated on the label. If
you've used soil in your medium, it will provide many of the nutrients
the seedlings need, so you only need to fertilize every 10 days or so.
Using an oscillating fan on medium setting helps simulate the wind,
making the plants stronger and stockier.
after several weeks of nurturing your seedlings, you should have
healthy, stocky plants with a good foundation to thrive and produce. But
they need to be toughened up to deal with the outdoor environment. About
2 weeks before it's time to plant in the garden, decrease the plants'
water and stop fertilizing.
A slightly lower temperature is a good
idea, too. This slows growth and makes foliage less succulent. Then
spend another week hardening the plants to the outdoors. Start with a
few hours exposure to shade each day, increasing to full sun over the
course of a week.
Fortunately, there are lots of places
around the home that can provide a little extra warmth. Gentle
bottom heat under
the flat is preferable because it's applied directly to the medium,
where the seeds are. Try the top of a refrigerator, water heater or
furnace. Spots near radiators and heating registers are fine, but not
too near - too much heat can be as detrimental as cold. And check flats
in warmer spots often because they may dry out quickly.
It's easier to use an electric heat mat
specially made for putting under flats of seedlings. It works much like
a regular heating pad. Heating cables are another option. Since they're
flexible and come in various lengths, and can be customized to fit the
Both types of heating come either with or
without thermostats to control the temperature. As soon as the seedling
shoots emerge and stand up straight, they prefer cooler temperatures, so
you can remove artificial heat and concentrate on putting the flats in
the best available light conditions. This fact also helps you economize
on buying heat mats or cables.
Since you start different types of seeds
at different times, the early ones are through with their bottom heat in
time for the next batch. For those that require more warmth while
growing, try using an old aquarium! It doesn't matter if it's leaky.
Moisture is required for seed
germination. Most seeds remain dormant until they are in a warm
where they can soak up water. Keep seeds and
young seedlings constantly moist but not wet; otherwise they could
rot or their pots might get moldy. It's also best to avoid a sudden gush
of water that could displace seeds or knock over tiny seedlings. One way
of doing this is to use a fine-nozzle sprayer to gently mist seedlings.
Bottom watering works even better. This
is where using peat pots in a plastic tray comes in handy. Both peat
pots and peat-based seed-starting mix are highly
absorbent. Pour water into the tray around
the pots and let it wick up, moistening the medium indirectly. You can
also leave one pot empty and water all the plants through there. This
ensures even bottom watering, cutting down on the possibility of getting
afflicted with mold.
Don't leave excess water standing around
the bases of the pots. Try putting small amounts of water in at a time,
letting that soak up and then adding a little
Transplant seedlings with a metal
fingernail file. The pointed end will lift out even the smallest
seedling while the curved end separates seedlings that are growing in
clumps. Look in kitchen drawers for tools you can use. You may even find
some that prove more useful in the yard and garden than in your kitchen.
Or, use bamboo shish kabob skewers or Japanese chopsticks. They're
useful for prying the seedlings out of the starting mix when
transplanting. The thin, pointed tip works well for teasing roots apart
on seedlings which have grown together.
Hold seedlings by their first leaves
rather than the stems. At this tender stage, the stems can be easily
bruised or broken. Using the
the leaf from tearing away from the
plant. Also remember to replant each seedling as you move it. Even a
short time out of the soil will dry the roots and slow down the
re-establishment of the young plant. After they've been watered in, some
of the starts fall over and lay on the soil. The skewer makes a good
tool for carefully lifting each plant and holding it upright. Then, a
second skewer comes in handy for gently firming the soil to help the
seedling stand up until the roots take hold.
that the Plants are in the Garden
In late spring, cutworms can devastate
vegetable and flower gardens by mowing down tender seedlings at ground
level. One way of protecting plants is with cutworm collars. Recycle
honey, peanut butter tubs, and yogurt containers for this purpose. In
the event of a cold snap, the collar also can double as a mini
greenhouse by popping on the lid.
You could also make cutworm collars from
old lawn edging, cutting strips, rolling them into a circle, and
stapling the overlapping edges. As you slip a collar around a plant,
press it into the soil so at least an inch of it is buried and at least
2 inches are above soil level. This way critters can't crawl under or
over the barrier.
Cutworms are hairless caterpillar-like critters that treat your garden
like a midnight buffet - munching off the young seedling at or just
below the soil surface. Don't forget to weed, feed and water your
seedlings in the garden!
If you've made this far, you're on your