Despite the cold temperatures outdoors, the lengthening of daylight hours is heralding the approach of spring. For gardeners or would-be gardeners, this is a great time to plan to grow a vegetable and/or flower garden. Last month in this section, we discussed the process of selecting and ordering seeds. Now, with these seeds in hand, our focus will be on starting plants indoors.
Consulting the calendar is the first step in planning for when to start seedlings, since timing is essential in predicting when an individual plant will be ready to move out into the garden. This can be determined by identifying the last spring frost date and counting back the number of growth weeks or days needed for each plant selection. In Chautauqua County, the last frost-free date is May 20. Charts are invaluable as guides for this step and can be referenced on various gardening web-sites or in select seed catalogs.
Assembling the necessary materials to cultivate seedlings is the next step. A variety of containers can be used successfully from commercial products to home-made or recycled containers. It's a personal choice as long as the pots are clean, have good drainage and are at least 3 inches deep. Potting soil or growing medium is preferred over outdoor soil since these mixes are free of weeds, disease and insects and structurally provide better moisture control. Fill the containers, moisten and compress the soil, then sow the seeds according to package directions. Label each cell or container with the variety and date, then locate in a sunny, south-facing window. The growing environment should be warm and protected from drafts. If available, supplemental lighting using horizontal fluorescent fixtures can be used for more robust plant growth.
Consistent care and maintenance of the seedlings is key to sustaining healthy plants. Pots should be kept moist, but not soggy. This can be accomplished by misting the soil or bottom watering (soak underneath in a pan). Since most ''potting soil'' is low in nutrients, fertilization of seedlings is necessary after the seedlings emerge and develop ''true'' leaves. A variety of organic fertilizers is readily available at garden supply stores and should be applied at half strength every two to three weeks. Larger plants such as tomatoes, peppers and broccoli will benefit from transplantation to larger pots after about four to six weeks. This practice provides more root space for the developing plant. The transplants soil should be well-watered before carefully lifting to its new container, re-potted and moistened.
As frost-free temperatures approach and outdoor conditions warm, seedlings will need to be acclimated to the outside environment. The transition from the protected indoor setting to the garden is called hardening-off. It is perhaps the most crucial step in growing healthy plants. The sun's direct rays, wind, and fluctuating temperatures are very stressful to these delicate transplants; gradual exposure is critical. According to experts at Cornell Cooperative Extension, ''set seedling containers outdoors in a lightly shaded, sheltered spot for a short period of time, gradually increasing time outdoors to a full day. Keep well-watered and protected from the wind. Make the transition to full sun and wind beginning with an hour, increasing to half days and then to several full days of sun and wind before the final transplant into the garden.'' Plants should be set into the garden soil in late afternoon or evening followed by a thorough, gentle watering.
Seedlings or transplants are fairly easy to grow if given the proper environment and care. By starting vegetable and flower seedlings during cool weather, gardeners can get a jump on the growing season. Further details on ''Seed Starting'' can be found on the Cornell Cooperative Extension website at: ecgardening.cce.cornell.edu/PDFs/Starting%20Seeds%20at%20Home.pdf.
Master Gardener Minute
The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50-plus hours of Cornell-approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year. For further information, contact Betsy Burgeson, Master Gardener coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension/Chautauqua County, 664-9502, ext. 204.