News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Mid-February is a good time to begin seed starting

Linn County Master Gardener

Want to get a garden started, but are thwarted by frosty or snowy mornings? Was that you we saw at the seed rack in the store? 

Sort your seed packets by indoor starting time. Best guesses (almanac.com) say there will be a week of sunshine in mid-March and last frost will be early April this year. 

Many cold-hardy transplants can be planted outdoors “as soon as ground can be worked.” If they are started now from seeds, they will have their true leaves and time for transitioning from warm, to cool, to cold garden by mid-March. 

Some seed packages suggest starting indoors eight to 10 weeks before last frost, or six to eight weeks before last frost. That is now, mid-February. 

Some flowers and native plants require cold stratification (exposure) for a period before getting a warm start. Hollyhocks are an example. Stratification mimics natural weather cycles, as if they are re-seeded in your yard, and can be done in the refrigerator, freezer or a tray of soil set outside where the cats can’t get into it. 

Some cold-hardy vegetables (peas, beets, carrots, radishes, onion sets, cauliflower) can be directly sown into cold soil with good drainage, but will take longer to appear than if sown in warmer soils. 

Carrots and radishes are not usually sown for transplants because it disturbs their root development and causes weird shapes.

No special equipment is required for seed starting indoors. A table or shelf next to a south or southeast window can provide natural light. Additional light can come from a common lamp, Using a light bulb for plant growth would be even better – available at many hardware stores. 

Along with light intensity is consideration of day length controlled by us indoors. Longer light periods fool the seedlings into thinking they are in the summer season or nearer to the equator. A temperature between 60 and 70 degree F is ideal for most seeds to germinate quickly, at least as quickly as they are programmed by nature. Most of us keep our homes above 60 degrees F for our own comfort.

For planting the seeds, consider biodegradable egg cartons or toilet paper rolls filled with potting soil. The soil does not need to be fertile for a seed to wake up, just holding moisture. The seedlings will not be crying for nutrients until they get their second set of leaves, then a quarter-strength fertilizer can be added to their water. 

The egg cartons, tp rolls or whatever (recyclable) containers do not need to be full to provide moist warmth to the seeds. Watering from the bottom keeps us from splashing the shallow-planted seeds out of position and makes moisture available on those days when we forget to check on the babies. 

A recycled clear plastic bakery clamshell lets us see the water level and provides a lid to the mini-greenhouse, keeping moisture from evaporating out. Didn’t save clamshells from the last grocery store bakery visit? Here is an important reason to buy some sweets tomorrow and eat them quickly.

Tag the plants with the name, variety, date planted, and number of days the packet says they will take to germinate. Having that information lets us “remember” when to expect results. 

Use cut-up cottage cheese, sour cream or yogurt containers for tags, with crayons or permanent markers that won’t wash away. 

If the seedlings get long and leggy, move the light closer. When the opportunity for planting outdoors finally arrives, set the seedlings in a lighted area that is protected from wind and rain for a week or more before shocking them with cold, wet ground.

Want to know more about how to nurture specific plants while waiting for the seeds to sprout? Try garden books from the library, or search websites like almanac.com and catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu. 

Also, actually read all the information on the back of the saved seed packet. Some of us save the packets in notebooks or boxes so we can look up cultivation information at planting and harvesting time.

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