Gardening Topic for February 2006
Winter Antidote: Planting Seeds in February

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

By Karen Chrisman, Master Gardener 


In the 1970's, as part of my back-to-the-land-do-everything-from-scratch lifestyle, I decided I should start my own seeds. I asked my astonished parents for a four-foot shop light for Christmas. My mom's gift tag read "Lettuce be thankful."

That first shop light hung above waterproof trays set on an old upright piano. Planting with far more hope than knowledge, I used trial and error regarding scheduling of planting, temperature requirements, spacing, materials, and labeling. And yet the seeds grew. Not 100 percent. Not always sturdy and vigorous. Not always the seedling I expected. But they grew. It seemed like a miracle. It still does. I haven't missed a season since.


Now it's that time again. Go pick out the exact varieties of vegetables and flowers you want from your favorite catalogs or garden center and plant some seeds. It makes the spring come sooner. Don't be intimidated by complex instructions; start with a few seeds this year and see if you enjoy it enough to expand next year.


Here are some of my basic tips for success, and the reasons for them, learned (sometimes the hard way) from experiments, from reading, and from experience. If you're inspired, read more details in the February 2002 archive article or check these web sites:


What do I plant the seeds in?


Regular potting soil is too heavy and it's not sterile. Tiny plants are susceptible to soil diseases, and seedlings living in our artificial interior environments only thrive when we control everything to meet their needs. Soil less mixes containing finely textured vermiculite, perlite, peat, or coir provide a clean and hospitable medium. Recently I started using cylindrical peat sponges that fit in reusable Styrofoam blocks. These are more expensive, but they save time when I'm planting lots of seeds.

What do I put this non-soil in?


In the early years I used an assortment of yogurt cups with holes punched in the bottoms, small flats from previous plant purchases, or egg cartons. I became better organized and could manage more seedlings when I used the plastic six-packs, four-packs, and small flats that would sit neatly in standard or half size seed trays. Once the seedlings are in the garden I run the used pots through the dishwasher (hosing them off outside first is helpful), and soak the styrofoam in a 1:7 bleach/water solution. I store everything clean, since nothing dampens a seed-starting project like the prospect of washing out all of your pots.


How do I know what's what?


Labeling is good. In spite of my care plants occasionally get mixed up, with amusing results. I often give a few extra seedlings to a friend. This year she planted one labeled 'pumpkin' and was surprised to watch it grow into a huge tithonia covered with velvety orange flowers rather than large orange pumpkins.


Labels that can move right to the garden are best. I cut quart yogurt containers into strips, make a point on the end, and use a permanent marker. A little experimentation to see which markers are more permanent than others can save you from a disappointingly blank label when you're checking the variety of those especially fine tomatoes.

These labels can be rinsed in the bleach solution and reused for several years. The more ambitious among you can add seeding and planting out dates, or even harvest dates, to your labels.


When do I start?


Count backwards from planting out dates to schedule your seed planting for the right time. Read seed packets carefully; they are surprisingly informative. Some seeds like cooler temperatures to germinate and most like warm, some like light to germinate though most prefer dark, all like moisture. Some need an overnight soak or a nick in the seed coat or a month in the fridge. I write the dates to plant the seed and to plant outside right on the seed packet and sort them in date order. I underline the helpful cultural information on the packets so I don't miss it when I'm planting. You could use a calendar, a chart, a palm pilot, or a database to track this information if you like, but my goal is to have sturdy, healthy seedlings at the right time, not to have great charts.


Where do I do it?


Since my home is cool and many seeds need warmth, my investment in heat mats has meant quicker and more consistent germination and early growth. Staggering my planting means I can reuse the mats once one crop is up. If you don't have a mat, look for a warm spot for sprouting your seeds, but watch that they don't dry out. Cover them with plastic wrap until they sprout or use a clear plastic cover made to fit the seed trays. I use a utility knife to cut ventilation holes in those covers, however, so I can control the difference between 'evenly moist' and dripping wet.


Sprouted plants with their first true leaves prefer a cool house but don't like drafts or too great a temperature change between day and night. Water and feed from the bottom to keep tender foliage dry and help prevent fungal disease from getting established. I keep water at room temperature. Since the planting mix has no nutrients I fertilize with fish emulsion or seaweed compounds as directed, beginning with a dilute solution and making it stronger as the plants grow.


Light, light, light


Light is critical. Inexpensive florescent shop lights come in 2 and 4-foot lengths. Set up with a timer for at least sixteen hours a day, these will provide more consistent light than a windowsill and produce sturdier, stockier plants. If you can invest in only one thing for this project I would recommend a light, with some way to raise and lower it above the plants as they keep getting taller.


How big will they get?


Once the seedlings have developed true leaves you can thin and transplant as needed. Keep a close eye on this little indoor garden; this is not the best time to schedule a lengthy vacation. Check the roots and transplant up to larger containers before pot-bound roots lead to interrupted growth. If weather delays planting outdoors you may want to pot up a second or even third time. I plant my eggplants and tomatoes a little early and aim to have them in quart pots by early May. I pinch off any flowers that appear before I'm ready to move them outside to keep the energy going into the roots. Once the weather is settled and the plants have had a few days on the porch to acclimatize to the great outdoors I know they will just take off in the garden.


A bonus tip


I like to start some melons, squash, and pole beans, to get a head start on these warm weather crops. They prefer no disturbance of their roots when transplanted, so three-inch peat pots are ideal-except that they become floppy and difficult to handle when wet. I discovered that these peat pots would sit neatly into three-inch square plastic pots. This gives me a solid package to tend, but I can still remove the peat-potted plant and set it undisturbed in the garden (remember to tear off the top of the pot so the peat is below soil level, otherwise it can wick water from the plant).

Many gardeners don't start seeds, and there are more and more seedling choices at local, discount, and even Internet suppliers. In a tightly scheduled life it might seem there's no time for seeds-but consider it, especially if you have kids who can participate. It's really a miracle. All the rest is just detail.

For other articles, check out our archives

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association