Steps of Seed Germination

Get a clean paper cup, fill it with dirt and pop in a seed. It is just that simple. Almost every kid has attempted this and successfully watched a bean seedling emerge from a seed. Unfortunately, serious seed starting is not quite so easy. Between the diseases many soils contain and the variety of seeds with varying needs, sometimes it seems more a scientific feat than a fun science experiment. Still, there is something empowering about harvesting the fruit of what once started out as a seed and grew from your efforts.

Timing

Because seeds are so readily available and there are so many gadgets to help us grow them out of season, many people do not realize that timing is critical for seed starting. Don't get overzealous. Starting seedlings too early can result in spindly, weak plants. When ordering seeds, refer to the package instructions for timing details. If a packet of peppers recommends starting the seeds indoors four weeks prior to transplanting, count four weeks before the last frost date for your area, if this is when you are planning to plant. If you don't plan on planting until two weeks after that date, then do not start the pepper seeds indoors until four weeks before you plan to plant.

Soil

Dirt is dirt isn't it? Not when it comes to plants. When starting seeds, never use regular garden soil. Soil can contain disease or become crusty, making it difficult for a new sprout to get through. A sterile, store-bought mixture is usually the best bet. Use horticultural vermiculite or a mixture of equal amounts of vermiculite, milled sphagnum moss and perlite. Seeds do not need a fertilizer to germinate as the pods already contain the nutrients they need. You could add a weakened fertilizer once the seedling has emerged, but you will have to refer to the individual plant needs for amounts and types.

Temperature

When a seed packet recommends planting at a particular temperature, it is referring to the soil temperature, not the air temperature. Maintaining consistently warm temperatures both day and night signals the seeds to begin growing. Generally seeds germinate better if their soil temperature is constantly 70° Fahrenheit, but check the packet for individual needs.

A soil thermometer can tell you if you are maintaining the proper temperature. Do not place seeds on a windowsill for germination. Seeds need constant temperature, not light. Windowsills can be drafty and even the best-insulated windowsill is not going to stay at a constant temperature with the rising and setting of the sun.

Many methods can be used to keep the seeds at a constant temperature. The simplest method would be to find a spot that maintains a consistently warm temperature, like the top of a water heater. For people who don't like to leave it to chance, a heat mat or a fluorescent light is a good choice. When using a fluorescent light, the plants will need to be positioned very close, about six inches from the tubes, to benefit from the consistent temperature.

Moisture

Seeds need constant moisture to germinate properly. The tough part is knowing just how much water to give them. Too much water and the seed will rot. Not enough and they will never germinate. Keep them misted daily so the soil is always damp, not wet. A good way to keep the moisture in is to cover with a plastic bag or the plastic cover that comes with many seed planting flats. This also helps to keep the temperature warmer. Just remember to keep covered seedlings out of direct sunlight or the temperature may become too hot. Water should be room temperature.

Seeds

Is one place better than another when it comes to purchasing seeds? Maybe not, but you need to be careful when ordering seeds from a seed catalog and choose plants that will do well in your area. Many varieties of plants thrive in a particular climate. A local nursery will usually carry the seeds that are indigenous to the area.

Markers

Make sure that you label each pot with the name and variety of the plant and the date that it was planted. Unless you are an avid gardener, most seedlings are going to look alike.

Seedlings

Once the seeds have germinated and the seedlings emerge, they need light and plenty of it. Take the cover off the flats if you have been using one. Unlike the germinating seeds, seedlings need direct sunlight. Temperatures of 55° to 60° Fahrenheit at night and 65° to 70° Fahrenheit during the day will prevent soft, leggy growth and minimize disease troubles. Individual varieties may vary. Check packet instructions. Thin out to one seedling per pot.

Hardening off and Transplanting

Before transplanting outdoors, help the seedlings to become acclimated to the climate by hardening them off. When the weather begins to permit, put the vigorous seedlings outside in their containers for a short period, then bring them back in. Add a little more outside time each day.

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