In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
February, 2004
Regional Report

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Here is a mouthwatering little spring planting of lettuce and peas to tempt you to start your seeds.

Time to Start Seeds

My office is on the east side of the house, and so on sunny mornings, I'm sent off into dreams of warm spring weather, coupled of course with the itch to start gardening. The itch is only aggravated more as I spend evenings perusing the hundreds of seed catalogs that land in my mailbox every year. So, it's finally time to prepare for starting seeds.

The first step is to take stock of what seeds are left from last year. Conscientious gardeners always test their seeds for germination, but I tend to be somewhat impatient about this step. Since I'm eager to place my seed order, I usually forego germination tests and plan to sow older seeds a little more thickly and order lots of new seeds.

While waiting for my seeds to arrive, I make sure I have the supplies I need: seed-starter mix, flats or pots to grow the seedlings, and labels. Happily, most garden centers have these things on the shelves already. Whatever I don't have is just a purchase away. Besides, there's no better place in winter to spend a little time than in a warm garden center looking at plants and planting stuff.

You can use just about anything for growing seedlings as long as it drains well. I tend to use flats -- the plastic trays that flower and vegetable packs come in. I feel good about recycling them and don't spend a lot of money. If one breaks, I just throw it away. My newest discoveries are the clear plastic egg cartons that organic eggs come in; they make perfect seed-starters, complete with lids to make mini-greenhouses.

Although container type isn't critical, the potting mix can make or break your transplants. Since roots require air and water, the soil must allow plenty of air space and drainage, while at the same time retaining water and nutrients. Although it's a bit more expensive, I use a mix that is specialized for seed starting. That way I know it is sterile; light enough to drain well yet able to hold moisture for the tiny roots; and that it contains milled sphagnum moss, which has natural, fungicidal properties to prevent damping off (when seedlings rots at the soil line and fall over).

Timing is Everything
Now to the crux of the process -- timing. If you are growing transplants indoors in a warm situation (70 degrees or higher), you should start them later than if growing them at 55 to 60 degrees, where their growth will be somewhat slowed. The starting times given below are general for our area and should be adjusted according to your own situation. This will always take some experimentation, and there will certainly be those years when we have a very early warm spell and you wish your seedlings were out. But also remember those years when it doesn't seem to warm up until late May, and you have stretching tomatoes in every window.

To use the chart, count the weeks to the set-out date and then count back to the approximate date for sowing seeds. Put everything on a calendar and keep it handy! The average dates for last spring frost are:
Zone 4 - May 15
Zone 5 - April 25
Zone 6 - April 15

Broccoli: Set out 4 weeks before last frost; sow 7 weeks before set out
Brussels sprouts: Set out 4 weeks before last frost; sow 7 weeks before set out
Cabbage: Set out 5 weeks before last frost; sow 7 weeks before set out
Cauliflower: Set out 4 weeks before last frost; sow 7 weeks before set out
Eggplant: Set out 2-3 weeks after last frost; sow 9 weeks before set out
Leeks: Set out 5 weeks after last frost; sow 5 weeks before set out
Okra: Set out 3-4 weeks after last frost; sow 7 weeks before set out
Onions: Set out 6 weeks before last frost; sow 5 weeks before set out
Peppers: Set out 2-3 weeks after last frost; sow 7 weeks before set out
Tomatoes: Set out 4 weeks after last frost; sow 8 weeks before set out


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