March is the month to start sowing seeds indoors, particularly for warm weather plants that require a head start on our short growing season. In case you are not among the eager gardeners ready to grow their own vegetables, herbs and flowers from scratch, you are likely not alone.
Starting plants from seed is not overly complicated, but looking after young seedlings does requires a daily commitment and a bit of practice to get it right. If you are tempted to start your own seedlings, then read on. Following are reasons why seedlings fail along with some tips to ensure seeding success. But be warned: once you become a master at nurturing your own plants from seed to maturity you may never go back to purchasing ready-to-plant favourites from the garden centre.
1. Choosing the wrong seeds
Not all plants are suitable for seed-starting indoors. Many perennials, for instance, are too fussy to grow from seed, requiring very specific light or temperature conditions to germinate successfully. Grow easy plants like peppers, chives, lettuce, zinnias and cosmos to begin with and expand your seeding repertoire as you gain experience. Ultimately, your outdoor growing conditions should determine what seeds to grow, because even if you are successful at growing tomato seedlings indoors, they will not bear fruit if their transplanted location in the garden is too shady.
2. Wrong timing
Timing is a large part of seeding success. Start seeding too early and you risk having overgrown, root-bound seedlings that cannot be planted in the still-too-cold weather outdoors. Start too late and seedlings won’t be properly developed. Read the seed packet for the number of ‘days to maturity’ and know your last frost date (around May 3 for Montreal area) counting the weeks backward from that date to know when to start seeding. Warm weather veggies like eggplants, tomatoes and peppers which have high number of ‘days to maturity’ are examples of plants best started indoors this month.
3. Growing too much
With the dizzying selection of seeds available from stores, catalogues and online sources, novice and experienced gardeners alike can easily get carried away planting too many seeds at once and taking on more than they can handle. To avoid this, choose no more than four seed varieties to start with and limit the number of plants of each variety to what you can easily manage. One zucchini plant will offer more zucchinis than a household knows what to do with.
4. Damping off
One of the most common yet easily preventable reasons that seedlings fail is because of ‘damping off’ — a fungal disease that arises in overly humid conditions. Fungal diseases can be transferred from dirty pots or unsterilized soil, so not washing your seeding containers or using ordinary garden soil is asking for trouble. Remove any plastic covering the seeds as soon as they germinate and use quality, seed-starting soil, which is porous but holds optimum moisture for seedlings. Overcrowding can also encourage damping off, so thin (cut out) any weak seedlings to allow stronger ones to take root and use a fan in your growing room to keep the air circulating. 5. Incorrect watering
Overhead watering and using containers without drainage holes increases the likelihood of seed rot and damping off, so get into the habit of bottom-watering your seedlings: place seed pots in a tray filled with water and let them absorb water from their drainage holes for about 15 minutes, then dump out any residual water in the tray.
6. Not enough light
Germinated seeds require14 to 16 hours of light daily and the amount of sunlight from the average household window in late winter is both insufficient and inconsistent to sustain proper growth for most seedlings, which will become weak and spindly as they reach for sunlight. Do like the pros and make sure to have grow lights, especially if you plan on growing tomatoes and other flowering plants. Inexpensive, adjustable, cool florescent light bulbs placed 8 centimeters away from tops of seedlings and a timer are what you need to get the job done right.
7. Not acclimatizing seedlings
Seedlings grown in a controlled environment indoors must be acclimatized — a process called ‘hardening off’ — before they can survive the harsher growing environment outdoors. Before transplanting to their permanent location, place young plants outside for increasing periods of time over a week or so to avoid shocking them with a blast of strong sunlight or cold wind and undermining all your efforts up to that point.
Growing plants from seed indoors can save you money and is easy. With a little planning and the proper seeds, soil, lighting and moisture it may even become a late-winter gardening ritual you look forward to.
Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com