I thought last year was strange as far as the weather went but this year has been a real kicker. Last week we had temperatures in the 60’s and this week down to zero. Weather like this forces me to look at the calendar to remind myself how far we are into the year. The Master Gardeners Plant Sale is just around the corner on May 14th and my start date for plants is already here. I won’t start anything that is going to be planted outside until the first half of April, though. Mine will all go in the greenhouse. I do hope we don’t get the fluctuating temperatures like we did last spring. Although we aren’t quite ready to start our plants, it is time to start getting your supplies together and planning the timeline.
This year it looks like we could be able to plant the week after Mother’s Day again. March is projected to be colder and wetter than what we’ve had for the past year but that still may not be much. Only time will tell. As you consider what you are going to plant, just remember to consider the watering requirement. We have multiple options for obtaining plants for both flower beds and vegetable gardens. You can always go to the store (any big box store) and buy plants and seeds . For plants, this is not necessarily the best place to buy plants because the box stores have a certain inventory of plants that they purchase nationally. These won’t always be the best plants for our area. Another option is to purchase from one of the local nurseries. They will at least have plants that are suited for our climate and are much more likely to grow and produce well. Or you could buy plants at the Master Gardener’s sale. Those plants are not only selected for this area, but many are cuttings from pa rent plants that are already growing and are acclimated to our climate. The last option is to grow your own starters from seed.
To grow your own starter plants takes some planning and forethought. My best advice is to get all your seed catalogs together and start looking through the varieties of plants that you are interested in planting. Hopefully, you’ve already planned your garden or flower beds and at least know what type of vegetables or flowers you want and where you want them. Let’s use veggies for an example. First off, you want to make sure you are rotating your crops. Then look at the vegetables you want to plant and make your selections. The variety is the next topic. And this applies to flowers, too. Tomatoes would be a great example since they are one of the more common veggies grown by home gardeners. There will be page after page of tomato plants to choose from . An interesting catalog to look at if you’re really into tomatoes is “Totally Tomatoes”. They’re a company that specializes in tomatoes with a few other vegetables of the same family included (ie peppers). It’s almost hard to narrow down t he varieties unless you know in advance what you’re after. Tomatoes come in three basic categories: cherry/grape, slicers and sauce/paste. Cherry and grape tomatoes are great for salads and are eaten whole with no processing. I usually grow one or two of these each year just for salads and snacks. Slicers are just that. They are fairly juicy and great for sandwiches and for just eating sliced tomatoes. Great with cottage cheese. The sauce/paste tomatoes are specifically for canning. They have much less juice with more meat than other tomatoes and cook down well to make sauces and paste. These also work very well in salsa and picante. If they are canned properly, they’ll last several years. Once you narrowed down the type you want, then start looking at the number of days to harvest. This is usually the first thing you’ll see in the description. The lower the number the better chance you have of a good harvest. One thing to remember about the number of days to harvest .It really means t he number of days after transplanting into the permanent location. I’ve found, though, that it’s best to add about five days to the number. Obviously we want the lowest number possible with our short growing season. These same principles apply to everything you want to plant although crop rotation isn’t as important with flowers.
So now you’ve decided you want to start your own rather than buy plants and the seed has finally arrived. Now, let’s slow down a bit. Read the seed packet. The most important thing you need to find is the days to germination and length of time to transplant. Most germination times will be in the 10-14 day range although there are some that will be as much as 30 days. Time to transplant is usually 6-8 weeks. Now add seven days to the germination time and length of time to transplant. Subtract that total from the date you have selected to plant your garden. Count back and this will be the approximate date you want to put your seeds in the pots. Now, why add seven days? Good question that deserves an answer. When your seedlings are ready to transplant, you’ll want to harden them off for seven days before planting. Hardening off consists of taking the plants outside every day and placing them in a sheltered location so they can start getting used to the outdoors. Remember, up until now the y’ve been pampered and they have to learn to grow without all the comforts you’ve provided. Be sure to bring them back in at night.
Trays are invaluable when planting seeds. They make it easier to transport the pots and will catch any overflow of water. I put a piece of plywood under my trays so they don’t bend when I pick them up. Select a good potting soil and get your pots and trays ready. I’ve found it easiest to set up a production line. I have a large plastic container for the potting soil that I set on one end of my operation with the tray next to it. Some people will put all their pots in the tray first then just dump the soil into them, but I’ve found that to be pretty messy. I fill each pot then put it into the tray before I plant any seeds. Most plants will do well to start in a 2 inch pot, but larger veggies, such as pumpkin, squash and cucumbers are best to start in at least a 3 inch pot. Remember, with a 2 inch pot you may have to transplant later. Once I’ve filled all my pots , I will drop the seeds into the pots then press them all in to the recommended depth. Smooth the soil over the top and make su re you label either the flat or each pot as necessary. Trust me. Two months later you won’t remember what is in each pot if they aren’t labeled. Put your plants in a consistently warm area to germinate. Ideally the temperature will be a constant 75-80 degrees. If you don’t have that temperature, you can buy mats that will heat the soil. For the first few days light isn’t important but it will need to be available as soon as the first seedlings break ground. A lot of people will put their trays in a south facing window, but that is rarely sufficient. You’ll need to provide at least 12 hours of light every day. For optimum growth you will need to provide artificial light. A standard fluorescent shop light is fine. You don’t need to buy anything fancy or expensive. Make sure that you have a way to raise and lower the light when you set it up. You’ll want to keep the light within about 2 inches of the tops of the seedlings until they are ready to harden off. That means that you’ll be const antly adjusting the height of the light. Tray covers are great and should be used until the seedlings reach the top of the cover and start pushing against it. Covers help hold in humidity and conserve water as well as maintain a more constant climate free from drafts . Keep the soil moist, but not wet. It’s easy to overwater and cause the seed to rot. Seven days before you are going to plant, start hardening of your seedlings. Then you’re ready. Just as simple as that.
A few simple steps to a great start to your garden and flower beds. And did I mention that starting your own is a LOT cheaper than buying plants? Not to mention the relaxation of indulging our inner child and playing in the dirt again. If you have any questions or need more information about specific plants, ask a Master Gardener. It’s what we do.