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Urban Farmer: When starting seed, figure out what works best for you – and take good notes


By Ginger Dawson
KyForward columnist
 

The best time of the year is here. It is time to get the seed started.
 

I made a mistake in the past of starting seed too early. Each year, I have refined my approach and taken careful notes of starting dates, germination dates, varieties, etc… I’m always good at this record-keeping business at the beginning of the season. Then, even with the best intentions, it just ends.
 

Not that there aren’t more valuable things to take note of; but, well–as I have quoted before, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and I’m on my way. In my defense though, the notes on seed starting dates are probably the most important ones to keep.
 

(Photo provided)

(Photo provided)

And they are even more important if you pay attention them. This year, I got so caught up by the online accounts of fellow tribe members and their early efforts and successes, that I inexplicably ignored my own directives and started my seed TWO WEEKS sooner than last year.
 

I cannot account for this. It’s too late now. I’ve done it. Wish me luck.
 

There are many ways to start seedlings. A friend of mine has a huge setup in her basement with very good lighting. She is well on her way to a huge bounty. Others have a more modest affair and start seed in their kitchens. All methods are right as long as they produce nice, healthy plants.
 

This is how I do it (whether too early or on time):
 

First, you will need to prepare your soil. There are many different choices of seed-starting medium to select from for this, and some aren’t even dirt at all.
 

I need real dirt, personally. It’s what I grew up with. My father’s conversations in the car when driving down the road were always about the quality of the soil in the fields we were driving past—which ones were rich and loamy, which ones need tilling, which ones were rocky and poor. It’s all about the soil. It is what I grew up knowing. I can’t imagine gardening in anything but real dirt. But that’s my issue.
 

By preparing the soil, I am referring to getting the right amount of water in the mix. You want it to be friable. “Friable” means getting the soil to be damp to the extent that it will stick together in a handful, but not be muddy. You can do this by putting the soil in a bucket, adding water gradually and mixing it with your hands.
 

My seed starting containers of choice are Cowpots. They are made from sterilized cow poo and have the great added advantage of not only disintegrating when placed in the soil, but also fertilizing the plants. I find that peat pots do not break up as they should and cause the plant to be somewhat root bound. If you use peat pots, be certain to either tear the bottom off of them or remove them completely before you plant them in their final destination.
 

I fill each pot to the rim with the prepared soil and place it in a tray. The trays are placed on my heat mats. I have these set up on a table in my office so that I can monitor progress easily.
 

To plant the seed, I take an unsharpened pencil and poke two or three little holes in the dirt. Most seeds like a quarter of an inch of dirt on them. Put a little seed in each hole and then cover them. Firm the dirt gently onto the seed. It is important for the seed to have good contact with the soil.
 

Then, I cover each tray with a clear plastic lid.
 

(Photo provided)

(Photo provided)

The three most important things that seeds need to germinate are soil, heat and moisture. If you can ensure that these three important elements come together consistently, you will have success. The heat mats provide the heat (obviously), the cover helps maintain the moisture and, of course, the dirt’s duty is self-evident.
 

Once you have this all set up, it is important to monitor the progress. I can tell by the condensation on the plastic covers whether I have enough moisture, but I also carefully check the soil visually and by touch to see if it is right. Be careful not to overwater.
 

Germination times vary by plant. Basil germinates in a couple of days, while some peppers take as long as a week. If you do not use heat mats, it will take longer, which is fine.
 

When I have a good stand (a majority of plants emerging), I move the trays over to the lights. I adjust the lights to a height of about two inches above the plants. After a second set of leaves emerge on the seedlings, I thin the plants to just one per pot. I do this with a little pair of scissors. I just nip off the losers and leave their roots intact. This way, it doesn’t disturb the root system of the winner. My version of natural selection.
 

Sometimes, gardeners will leave the plastic covers on well after the plants emerge. This may be conducive to a condition called “damping off,” which is a fungal disease that occurs with too much moisture and heat. It will completely ruin your crop. The little seedlings just fall over on their sides, dead. There is no choice but to throw out the whole flat, disinfect the trays and start over again. Since I have always removed the plastic covers right after germination, I have never had a problem with this.
 

So, plants apparently have their own version of wretched excess. I am smarter with plants than I am with my own predilections. Well, at least I can claim that… about the plants, I mean.
 

Your plants will continue to grow. Keep the lights hovering just above them, keep them watered and feed them once a week with a weak solution of your preferred fertilizer. I like Monty’s (it’s still Joy Juice to me).
 

A week or two before Mother’s Day (remember, this is the last frost date in zone six), it will be time to harden off the plants to ready them for the great outdoors.
 

Now, this is just an account of how I start seed. There are infinite ways of going about it and the best way is what works for you, your particular setup and the time you have available. Experimenting is, for me at least, one of the most engaging aspects of gardening. Unleash your inner mad scientist. But remember to take notes and pay attention to them.
 

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Even though shegrew up on a farm in south central Ohio, Ginger Dawson did not start gardening until years later, when she became a homeowner. After several failed gardening attempts, Dawson set out on a quest to learn as much as she could about the craft, starting with compiling an extensive library. This self-taught gardener lives in Covington in Northern Kentucky, where she enjoys tending the garden behind her Italianate Victorian townhouse.
 
 
 
 


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