Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2001
Regional Report

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Start seeds indoors in peat or plastic pots, keeping them in bright light and well watered for best success.

Getting Seeds Started

Sprouting seeds indoors before planting them in the outdoor garden has many advantages. It allows for closer attention to their needs, provides a more optimum environment for growing, and leaves garden space free until seedlings are transplanted. Pre-sprouting also enables a gardener to gain several weeks of growth and have an earlier harvest by having healthy, well-developed seedlings to transplant when outdoor temperatures are still too cool for proper seed germination.

There are many ways to give your seeds a jump start indoors. Here are some of my favorites.

Paper Towel Method

This is the classic method that's sure to start seeds early and help you estimate the percentage germination of your crop. Place seeds on a dry paper towel, sprinkle them with water, cover them with another paper towel, and sprinkle again. Roll up and place the paper towel in an open-ended plastic bag in a warm (70oF), but not necessarily light, area. Check every few days and keep the roll moist. Seeds will begin to sprout in between 3 days for lettuce and 21 days for carrots and parsley.

When about half of the seeds have sprouted, cut the roll of paper towel into sections for planting. Place them on the garden soil, cover them with fine soil, and sprinkle them with water. Keep the surface moist until the sprouts appear through the soil. The paper will gradually decay, and the sprouts will anchor themselves successfully in the soil.

Jar Method

Like sprouting alfalfa or mung bean seeds for salads, this method requires placing seeds in a glass jar, keeping them warm, and rinsing them daily with water. But unlike the sprouts we eat, these sprouts should be gently separated and planted as soon as their roots emerge. Allowing them to develop further risks tangling and breaking roots when they're untwined for planting.

Place seeds in a container deep enough for you to cover them with water. Pour lukewarm water over the seeds and let them sit overnight uncovered. The seeds will absorb the warm water and will swell. The next day, plant the seeds in the garden, taking care not to rub the fragile skins roughly or push the seeds into hard soil. The abrasion may damage the seed.

If you let seeds soak too long, they may swell too much and break open. This lets disease organisms in and opens the door to rotting. I like this technique for larger seeds such as sweet peas and lupines.

Soilless Mix Method

This is probably the most widely used method of starting seeds indoors and is best for starting beans, melons, and squash. Combine equal parts of milled sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite to create a planting mix that's very porous and free of disease-causing organisms. Use new or recycled containers at least 3 inches deep, such as milk, cottage cheese, or yogurt containers. Sterilize these in a 10 percent bleach solution and make holes in the bottom, about 1/8 inch in diameter, for drainage.

Fill the containers with the planting mix, then spread the seeds on top and press them gently into the mix. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of milled peat, which will lessen chances of damping off disease striking. Water from the bottom of the containers by setting them in a pan of water for 10 minutes and allowing the water to seep through the drainage holes into the soil. Cover the containers loosely with plastic wrap, and place them in a warm, not light, area. Most seeds sprout at about 70oF; peppers and eggplant need to be nearer to 80oF.

When the seeds sprout and push against the plastic wrap, remove the wrap and move the containers into the bright light of a window or put them under grow lights. Bottom-water them every other day. After two to three weeks, add a mild dose of houseplant fertilizer to one watering.

When the plants have developed their second set of true leaves, begin to harden them by reducing watering, and by setting them outside in a sheltered area for a couple of hours each day. Gradually increase the time outdoors over a two week period until they are outside all day and night. The plants are now ready to transplant to their permanent spot in the garden.

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