Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
February, 2007
Regional Report

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Does this luscious lettuce tempt you to start seeds now for early spring?

Start Those Seeds!

Are you as eager as I am to start seeds for the spring garden? This is a good time to review what seeds need to germinate and grow successfully. The two most important considerations for growing successful transplants are viable or fresh seeds and an appropriate environment for germination and growth.

Checking Seeds
Seed viability is fairly easy to determine. If you are purchasing new seeds, simply check the "packed for" date to be sure they're fresh. If you're using old seeds, germinate a few in a damp paper towel for about 10 days to see whether it's worth your time to use them. If few germinate, it's time to buy new seeds.

Treat Them Right
Once you know your seeds are good, get the growing environment ready. A seed's first step in germination is to take in water. You have to provide the moisture for this to happen. The water fills the cells, the seed goes through physical and chemical changes that start embryo growth, and the root and shoot emerge.

Sprinkle your seeds on moist, sterile seed-starting mix and then monitor the soil to keep the moisture levels fairly even while the seeds begin to germinate. The seeds will die if the soil is allowed to dry out during the germination process, and soil that is too wet may cause disease problems. Wet soil also prevents the newly emerged root from getting the soil oxygen it needs for growth.

Use sterile potting mix to prevent diseases. The worst problem with germinating seeds and growing seedlings is a fungal disease called damping off. This occurs with dirty pots or potting mix that isn't sterile. My favorite insurance is to cover germinating seeds with a light covering of milled sphagnum moss (found at the garden center), which has natural fungicidal qualities.

The depth at which you plant your seeds can affect germination. If you plant a seed too deeply, it will be inhibited from growing. If not planted deeply enough, the seed will dry out. A general rule is to plant seeds at a depth that's twice their diameter. So, you can see that very small seeds should be planted almost on top of the soil.

Some seeds need light to germinate and should be placed right on top of the soil without any covering. Most vegetable seeds need some covering, though.

Once your seeds are planted and lightly covered with soil or sphagnum moss, you should cover the flat or pots with glass or plastic covers. This also helps regulate the moisture and keep them from drying out.

Now you must monitor temperature. Most seeds need temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees for germination although some of the cool-season plants (lettuce, spinach, and many other greens) like it cooler. In order to warm up the seeds, you can use a heating cable beneath the seed flat.

If you germinate your seeds in a spot without light, such as on top of the refrigerator, you need to watch carefully for the first sign of germination. As soon as you see that first little seedling poking its head above the soil, remove the cover and move the plants into light.From there on, they need as much light as possible to grow sturdy and strong.

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