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Time to start thinking spring
and gardening

Starting your own plants

By John Fulton          Send a link to a friend

[February 19, 2007]  It's now heading toward March. It still gets cold some days, and the days are still short, but those seed catalogs are a sure sign of spring on the way. Groundhog shadow or not, it is time to plan for starting your own plants. There are quite a few details to begin your own transplants.

I don't know which comes first, the chicken or the egg, so I'll begin with the hardiness zone. All of Logan County lies in Zone 5b, but we are on the border with 5a. What difference does this make? "About a three-week difference in seed starting date" is the answer. 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, petunias, marigolds and tomatoes would be planted March 25. Cucumber, muskmelon and watermelon could be started as early as April 15. The rule of thumb is to allow about six weeks before you want to set the plants outside. This gets back to the frost-free dates and the frost tolerance of plants.

What should you plant your seeds in? You should use a sterile growing medium. There are several kinds of soil-less germinating mixes, potting soils, peat cubes and compressed peat pellets that 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 two 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. The final container should match the seed (or plant) planting depth to what it would be directly seeded in a garden.

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Most seeds will germinate in a growing medium temperature of 60 to 70 degrees, but the melons and eggplants like it a bit warmer. Watering and fertilizing are just as important. 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 one tablespoon per gallon, 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 fluorescent and incandescent bulbs provides about the same light spectrum. Lamps should be about 12 inches away from plant leaves.

Before your starts are planted 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.

Then hold off transplanting until the proper time of the season. Otherwise, you've probably gone to the effort of starting your own seeds for nothing. Garden centers like nothing better than gardeners who set out tomato plants the first warm spell in April. That means they probably get to sell another set in May.

[Text from file received from John Fulton, unit leader, University of Illinois Extension, Logan County Unit]

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