Friday, March 21, 2014
 
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Starting your own transplants

By John Fulton

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[March 21, 2014]  It's definitely been one of those years. Questions abound on when to start transplants, finish pruning chores, when to start mowing and several others. In this column, I'll give you a little guidance  with emphasis on the little part  on starting seeds. I've held off a few weeks because of the weather. We know the weather will change, but this year it will change eventually.

There are quite a few details to begin your own transplants. Starting your own will only pay benefits if you want to transplant several plants; otherwise, the seed cost  and it has gone up dramatically the past few years  may be more than a four-pack of plants. Of course, some people just enjoy raising their own from seed, or they do it to make sure they get a variety they want.

I'll begin with the hardiness zone. For the Logan County and Menard County areas, we are still in the 5b zone. The Sangamon County area is now split, with Springfield being the border for zone 5b and zone 6a. The zone has shifted, with the border in our area now being between 5b and 6a instead of 5a and 5b. What difference does this make? The answer is about a three-week difference in seed starting date. In zone 5b, we would want to start broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce (if that's something you want to transplant) as early as March 5. Eggplant, herbs, pepper and tomato would be started about March 25. Cucumber, muskmelon and watermelon are started as early as April 15. The rule of thumb is to allow about six weeks before you want to set the plants outside  hence the late notice this year.

What should you plant your seeds in? You should use a sterile growing medium. Several kinds of soil-less germinating mixes, potting soils, peat cubes and compressed peat pellets are available. These media are generally free from insects, diseases and weeds. Enough fertilizer is generally present in these to allow for three or four weeks of plant growth.

As far as sowing the seeds, traditionally seeds have been put in shallow boxes in rows about 2 inches apart and covered lightly with vermiculite. Soon after the seeds come up, they are transplanted into other containers. An easier method is to start the seeds directly in the final growing container. For small individual or sectioned containers, it is common to plant two seeds per section. The final container should match the seed (or plant) planting depth to what it would be directly seeded in a garden.

Most seeds will germinate in a growing medium temperature of 60 to 70 degrees, but the melons and eggplants like it a bit warmer.

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Watering and fertilizing are just as important as when seeding directly into a garden. Water can't be too much or too little. The medium you are using also makes a difference, as peat pellets tend to dry out quickly. Fertilizer should be in the medium for the first three to four weeks. You can add a soluble fertilizer to the water at the rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon, to be used about once a week on established seedlings. Non-fertilized water should be used between the fertilizer applications.

Vegetable plants need direct light. Natural light only goes so far in the winter months. We want to try to provide about 12 hours of light a day on these transplants. Artificial lights work well to supplement natural light, or provide all light in a basement setting. Grow-light bulbs work well but are expensive. A combination of cool white fluorescents and incandescent bulbs provides about the same light spectrum. Lamps should be about 12 inches away from plant leaves.

Before your starts are transplanted outdoors, they should be hardened gradually by exposing them to outside conditions. Start by placing the plants outside a few hours a day. Use a very sheltered area to protect from direct light and winds. Gradually extend the time outdoors as planting time approaches. Remember, this process takes at least six weeks, so don't wait until the week before you are ready for transplants. Otherwise, you'll be in line buying plants.

As for pruning fruit trees, finish them up now if needed. The cold weather has delayed their development. On the question of pruning back roses, you may want to wait just a bit longer. The further cold weather predicted may cause further dieback in the canes. In raspberries such as the Heritage, you should cut back tops that produced last fall. You should also take out damaged, diseased and dead canes.

[By JOHN FULTON, University of Illinois Extension]
 

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