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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday — April 16, 2004


On the greener side

Get a head start

Express Staff Writer

Gardeners in climates such as ours face more than our share of challenges. Our growing season is cursed with brevity and the risk of surprise frosts--but we’re blessed by lots of sun.

Most years, the last frost often rears its discouraging head for the last time by late May. So, seed planting outside must be delayed longer than in other climes.

But don’t despair. Many vegetables and flowers can benefit from a wee push by being started indoors.

This concept should be easy but many gardeners have given up in frustration and just support their local nursery instead. However, it’s amazingly satisfying to work your own garden from start to finish, and can also save you a small fortune.

What you’ll need: space to lay out seed trays with lots of light, sterile soil, and an easy source of moisture. The latter is the one that requires the most attention. You want to keep the medium moist but not let it become wet or soggy. Seedlings will grow to be stronger in a moist medium.

It is essential that the soil you use in the containers be sterile. The size of the container will depend on what type of plant you're growing. You want to give bigger root growing plants a slightly bigger container, others may just need little peat pots to start.

Be careful of a common fungus called damping-off disease, which can wipe out hours of hard work in a matter of days.

To avoid this make sure you use a sterile soil or perhaps some other sterile medium such as vermiculite. When buying soil it should be clearly indicated on the packaging as sterile.

Fill containers about an inch from the top and moisten well. Let the excess water drain out completely. Press the medium down lightly to eliminate air pockets, then with a fingertip or pencil make spaces for several seeds in each container. Bury the seeds approximately two times deeper than the size of the seed. For the smallest seeds just cover them with a light sprinkling of dry potting soil.

Make sure the seedlings receive as much natural light as possible, otherwise they’ll become spindly, and weak. Artificial light may have to be supplemented. Use bulbs that are specifically made for growing plants and place them just a foot or so above your seedlings. You'll want to keep these lights on at least 14 hours a day. Fluorescent tubes are ideal because they don’t over heat and dry out the seedlings.

Now is a pretty good time to start your seeds. If they outgrow the small pots, thin them and transplant the largest to bigger pots. Normally you want to plant them outside just as they become large enough to survive transplanting. This is generally four to six weeks after sowing, when they have at least two sets of true leaves.

Small pots and flats dry out quickly, so check them often. If your seedlings are growing in a windowsill, turn them often to encourage straight stems.

The first two leaves on the plant are actually food storage cells. Soon, the first true leaves will develop. At this point, many gardeners feed the seedlings a little food in the form of a good balanced liquid organic fertilizer.

Harden the seedlings gradually by moving the plants to a shady outdoor area at first, and then indoors for the night if night temperatures are cold. Each day, move them out into the sun for a few hours, increasing the time spent in the sun each day. Keep them well watered.

Remember, the hallmarks of a successful gardener are desire, patience and the wherewithal to try, try again.

Dana DuGan is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express, a former member of the Fairfield County (Conn.) Garden Club, a member of the New York Botanical Society and an avid gardener.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.