Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
March, 2006
Regional Report

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The magic of starting herb seeds begins with a good potting mixture and bright light.

Time to Get Seed Starting in Gear

When spring blizzards pound the region, it's a reminder that springtime in the Rockies and high plains can be very unpredictable. We recently had over a foot of snow in the Denver metro area, and other parts of the Rocky Mountains had snowfall amounts of several feet. That's good for the mountains as it will keep the reservoirs filling with our precious resource of water. And even a spring that seems to be late in coming doesn't break the spirit of gardeners who are looking forward to a season of planting and harvesting.

Now is a great time to get caught up on the many new and heirloom varieties of vegetables that are available. Starting seeds indoors to transplant outdoors later is a fun and rewarding project. The miracle of germination and growth can be experienced firsthand by both young and old. Following are some of the secrets to success with seed starting:

1. Know when to start. It's important to have seedlings the right size at the proper time for planting outside. If you start too early, seedlings tend to get leggy and spindly, which makes inferior plants that have a harder time adjusting when planted outdoors.

Seeds of most spring and summer flowers, vegetables, and herbs should be started six to eight weeks prior to the last spring frost date. In some years, Nature can play havoc with the timing by bringing us late frosts. That's when we need to be prepared to keep our seedlings protected until spring has finally arrived. Some exceptions to the six- to eight-week rule include members of the cold-tolerant onion and cabbage families, which can be started as early as ten weeks before the last spring frost date.

2. Use clean and sterile containers: Wash and scrub seed starting containers with one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water. This helps to sterilize containers and reduce diseases which can kill new seedlings.

3. Start with a sterile growing mixture: The secret to preventing seeding diseases such as damping off and rot is to use a sterilized growing mixture or potting soil. Planting mixes should be able to retain moisture yet drain well to prevent growing conditions from getting too soggy.

4. Use bottom heat: Some seeds need bottom heat for good germination, and heating cables and mats are available for this purpose. Read seed catalogs and packets to find out the ideal germination temperature. Once the seeds are up, you can discontinue bottom heat and move the seedlings to a bright light location to encourage sturdy, healthy seedling growth. You can also place seed-starting containers in plastic bags and set them on top of a fluorescent light fixture, hot water heater, or refrigerator to provide some bottom heat.

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