In the Garden:
Lower South
February, 2006
Regional Report

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Starting your own plants from seed enables you to grow varieties not readily available as transplants.

Grow Your Own Transplants

There are several reasons why starting plants from seed makes sense. If you have a special old favorite or wish to try something new that you can't buy locally, you may need to grow it yourself. If you want to get a head start, or if you are planting in a season when supplies are typically unavailable, such as planting tomatoes in July for a fall garden, you'll do best to grow your own.

Growing transplants also helps cure a case of late-winter gardening fever. It may be too cold to garden outside but indoors you can get plants started.

Here are a few tips to get you off to a good start. It's really not difficult at all if you provide plants the conditions they need -- a quality growing mix, good lighting, proper temperatures, and appropriate nutrition.

The Right Growing Mix
Garden soil is not the best choice for raising transplants. Soil often contains disease organisms that may cause problems for germinating seeds. Special artificial media for seed starting are available at most garden centers. These fine textured potting mixes are made from peat and either vermiculite or perlite.

It's important to plant seeds at the proper depth. As a general guide, sow seeds at a depth of about two to three times their width. Some seeds need light to germinate and should be sown on the surface rather than buried. The seed packet includes the particular seed-sowing instructions for each species.

Keep the growing media moist by misting it regularly. Garden centers offer trays for starting your own transplants that have clear plastic covers to hold in moisture, like a mini greenhouse.

Temperature
Gardeners have long known that setting a seeded tray on top of the refrigerator where temperatures are a bit warmer helps the seeds germinate. Then once the seeds are up you can move the tray to another location where they can grow at room temperature.

Light
Seedlings need bright light or they will stretch and grow very spindly. I prefer to place the seed trays near a bright window in winter, or outdoors in a bright shady location in summer.

I find that providing supplemental lighting works best. A standard 4-foot shop light with two tubes can be suspended above the plants by twine or chains so the fixtures can be moved up and down as needed. For best results with a flat of seedlings, use two fixtures for a total of four tubes. Alternate a standard cool white tube with a warm white tube in each of the shop light fixtures.

Fertilizer
Seedlings will benefit from a very dilute dose of liquid fertilizer solution. If you use a standard soluble plant food, go with the low "constant feed" rate, starting when the plants have their first true leaves.

When transplanting time comes, start by moving them out for a short time each day to a bright but protected area, gradually extending their time outdoors. This process -- known as hardening off -- gets them ready for the permanent move to the garden.

Raising transplants is a great way to beat those winter blues with a little optimistic reminder that gardening season has already begun.


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