Plants from seed save money, add variety
In the middle of January, when most people are recovering from the holidays and wondering who will play in the Super Bowl, I can be found in my sunroom sorting seeds.
We are fortunate to live in New Mexico, but many plants don’t agree with our choice.
Before finalizing your selection, consult the extensive resources offered by the Sandoval County Extension Office. This site includes a plant selector, how-to videos and a link to a comprehensive list of publications (desertblooms.nmsu.edu).
When your seeds arrive, estimate the last frost date in your area, and group the seed packets by starting date. Store them in a cool dry place until planting time.
Successful germination is a function of the interaction of four components: timing, moisture, temperature and light. Recommended planting dates are a combination of germination times, temperature, rate of growth and the number of frost-free days in your area.
Each species has specific soil temperature requirements for optimum germination. A seedling heat mat can be very helpful to maintain the proper soil temperature.
Most plants require a moist surface for germination. Water the containers with a fine spray to avoid moving tiny seeds.
Although many seeds require darkness to germinate, adequate and consistent light is necessary for seedlings to grow well. I have experienced the greatest success using fluorescent shop lights.
Full-spectrum “plant” bulbs, or one warm bulb and one cool bulb, will provide the correct amount and type of light that seedlings need to grow successfully. Turn the lights on for 16 hours a day so that seedlings receive darkness, too.
The lights should be placed 2-3 inches above the seedlings, raising them as plants grow. A timer makes this process easier.
There are many types of containers on the market, but I have found that plastic containers work best for raising seedlings. They are reusable, contain the roots and don’t fall apart before planting time.
Yogurt cups and other recycled plastic food containers that are 2-3 inches deep are perfect. Punch several holes in the bottom for drainage, and soak them in a solution of one part house-hold bleach to nine parts water for 10 minutes to sterilize. Rinse the contain-ers in water and let them dry.
Quality seedling soil is composed of sphagnum peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and a wetting agent. It is also free from disease-causing organisms.
Thoroughly moisten the seed-starting mix before planting. Fill the container to the top, and brush off excess. Water the soil well, with a fine spray, until it is settled and saturated.
Do not compact the soil, as plants need air for root growth. Spread the seeds evenly on top of the soil. Cover the seeds with vermiculite about four times their depth, unless the seeds need light to germinate.
Then, use a very fine covering of vermiculite, which seems to help with moisture and disease. Cover very small seeds with a piece of cardboard if they require darkness to germinate. Label your container and place it under lights at the proper temperature for germination.
Water lightly every few days to keep the surface moist.
When your seedlings have two to four true leaves, it is time to transplant them to individual containers. Choose a container based on the size of the plant, growth rate and number of weeks that it will remain in the container.
Fill the transplant containers with soil. Make an indentation in the middle of each cell that is the same depth as the growing container. Carefully remove the seedlings from their growing container, separate and place each seed-ling in a separate cell or container.
Firm the soil around the stem, but do not cover the cotyledons (the first set of leaves that sprout from a seed). Water the containers well, and place them out of direct sun.
After the seedlings recover, place them back under the lights.
Before the seedlings can be planted outdoors, they must be acclimated to our environment. Begin by placing the seedlings outdoors in the shade when the temperature is at least 50 degrees and there is no wind. Bring them in at night if temperatures will be below 50.
Gradually increase the amount of light the seedlings receive during the day until they are able to withstand about four hours of morning sun.
Even though seedlings may seem to recover, wilting can be quite damaging. If this occurs, move the seedlings into the shade. Water them if they are dry, or mist the plants if the soil is already moist.
After the seedlings are hardened off, select a planting location based on each plant’s specific requirements. Plant in the evening, or on a cloudy day, so the plants can adjust when temperatures are cooler. Planting is easier when soil is moist.
Remove the seedling, spread the roots and plant at the same depth as it was in the container. Water well with a fine spray, and cover the root zone with mulch. Provide some shade in the hottest part of the year, gradually decreasing the amount until the seed-lings are able to withstand our intense sun.
Water the plants frequently at first, until they have adjusted and begin to grow again. Then water well, letting the plants dry out somewhat between each watering to encourage strong root growth.
Sit back and enjoy!
This article was previously published in the Rio Rancho Observer.