Dealing with seedmania in the dead of winter

My gardening gene is itching and making me long for the smell of earth and colours other than grey and while I’m sure seed companies know this because it’s just about now that the catalogues start pouring in. Bright pictures and tantalizing descriptions of “wonderful new variety,” “glorious mass of tropical-looking flowers,” “excellent, heavy-yielding and disease resistant.” (That last one’s a carrot, not a chicken.)

In these pre-spring days, anything seems possible. Of course, I can grow a canna from seed. A peony, too, and why not try astilbe? Seeds are a fraction of the cost of a plant, after all.

Well. I’m old enough to recognize the warning signs. I’m getting an attack of seed-mania and had better put the catalogues aside and lie down in a dark room for a while. And while I’m there, I can meditate on my gardening sins. Buying way more packs of seeds than I can cope with. Ordering seeds of plants that take forever to come up and even longer to bloom. Starting seeds and forgetting to water them. And so on…

The fact is, seeds are a bargain. One pack is probably enough for two city gardeners. And you can get interesting varieties that you won’t find growing at the local garden store. The downside is that, like babies, they need the right care and environment. But (again like babies?) it’s a wonderful experience to grow something yourself from seed.

Being a seed klutz, I asked Sandra Pella, head gardener at the Toronto Botanical Garden, for advice on starting plants from seed.

The big question: when to start? Think mid-March for heat-loving plants, later or even directly in the ground for cool-weather types.

“The basic, basic mistake is planting the seeds too deeply,” Sandra warned. Cover seeds with a layer of soil as thick as one-third of the seed’s height. Tiny little seeds really only need to be pressed into the earth with a flat piece of wood or the flat bottom of a jar.

“They should also have good contact with the soil,” she added, so pressing them in firmly serves a second purpose.

Seeds don’t need a fancy home, by the way. Do what Sandra does. Use any clean 8 to 10 cm inch pots, or even yogurt containers with holes in the bottom. And be sure to put fresh, clean soil in there, to keep the green babies free of disease.

“Keep seeds consistently moist, but not wet,” was her next piece of advice. To keep them from floating around when you water, use a small watering can with a rose attached. (In gardening language, a rose is that spray thing with holes that fits over the end of the spout.) A spray bottle also works.

Heat and light were next on her list. Room temperature – 18˚-24˚ C – is just fine. Light can be a little tougher. A window with full sun is great, but if you don’t have that, go for artificial lights. If you do grow under lights, be ready to raise them (or lower the seeds) as you go along. A good distance is about 30 cm from the tops of the baby plants.

Skip the fertilizer until the first true leaves appear, Sandra told me. The very first pair are “seed leaves” and don’t count. “Use a very weak solution so the plants don’t burn.” (Note to newbies: Fertilizer that’s too strong gives plants the equivalent of diaper rash.)

With the little critters happily growing, there’s just one last step: hardening off. That’s more garden talk for getting seedlings used to outdoor conditions. Three to five days in a cold frame should do it, she said. Don’t have a cold frame? Rig one from a shallow box covered with glass or clear, heavy plastic. (Or search the Web for instructions.)

After that, you can plant the greenies in the garden. Just keep as much earth around their roots as possible when you take them out of their starter pots.

Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer.

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