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What Seedlings Really Want

Thursday, October 15, 2009

At the very moment seeds germinate, they need extra attention. It's just like raising children. In this article we'll learn what your seedlings need to grow up to be healthy and respectable "kids" including how to compare soil to a slice of bread. Trust me on this one...

Understanding what seedlings need is the first step toward a successful garden, whether you grow your own vegetable, herb or flower seedlings, or purchase them from a garden center as bedding plants.

Darn. If only we knew what plants were thinking, similar to what Mel Gibson mastered in the movie "What Women Want." But until people-plant communications improve, here is the next best thing: Tried-and-true seed-growing tips for beginners as well as polished green thumbs, starting with...

Let there be light

See that photo above? Now that's a healthy batch of seedlings! And they're loving the light. Lack of adequate light however, results in pale, leggy and weak seedlings, which is a huge disappointment to many gardeners. Because seedlings require more intense light than full-grown plants, 14 to 16 hours a day is ideal.

Here's another tip: While windowsills are handy nurseries for raising plants, they can do more harm than good. Direct sun and cold air flowing down a window pane can do in a seedling. If you must use windowsills, supplement the light with reflectors and rotate plants every two days so light reaches all sides.

Seedlings need 14 to 16 hours of light per day

Better still, raise your seedlings under fluorescent lights. You don't need an expensive setup because shop lights work just fine. Adjust the height of your lights so they remain about four inches above the tops of the seedlings.


Keep it moist--do the bread test

Water is the highway that delivers nutrients, and seedlings need a steady supply of it. Keep soil moist, not soggy, and never, never, NEVER let it dry out. Check seedlings daily, mist them often and use room temperature water. Later, as seedlings mature, try to water from the bottom to encourage roots to "reach for it."

TIP: Drying soil is hard to detect visually, so do the bread test: The soil's surface should feel as moist as a slice of fresh bread. For another check, lift containers to sense their weight. Remember, light means dry.

Take their temperature

Most seeds germinate, and seedlings thrive, in a temperature range of 18 to 24 degrees C. Doc and Katy Abraham refined it further with their own experience. "The secret is to maintain 22.2 degrees, day and night." Exceptions include lettuce, parsley, cabbage and other cool weather plants that prefer cooler growing conditions. Once they reach two to three inches in height, they prefer cooler temperatures, say 10 to 15 degrees (or even less in some climates).


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1) Rinse your containers with a mild bleach-water solution.
2) Spray plants & soil with chamomile tea (1 tea bag/2 cups water).
3) Keep your seedlings healthy AND disease-resistant with an organic fertilizer.

Hey, we need a little air in here!

Proper ventilation is critical for healthy seedlings, helping them breathe by circulating carbon dioxide and oxygen. Moving air also prevents damping-off disease and it keeps pests at bay. A small fan is all you need to strengthen stems and prepare them for real outdoor breezes.


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Tickle your plants! Brush your seedlings occasionally with your hand to strengthen your plants and get them accustomed to air movement.
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No junk food served here


Just like children, a healthy diet is important for proper development. When seedlings reach about two inches tall and have developed their second set of leaves (also called their true leaves), they appreciate small doses of plant food. Use an organic kelp-fish emulsion, kelp or compost tea, or a balanced plant food blend.


Time to plant outside? Wait for a cloudy day


Before transplanting seedlings in the garden, they need to adjust to the great outdoors. This gradual process, called hardening-off, takes about a week. On Day One, set your seedlings outside in a shady, windfree area. After 2 or 3 hours, bring them back inside. Don't rush things. These are couch-potato seedlings and they're not used to the big outdoors. Increase the outdoor time gradually over the next few days.


Transplant seedlings on a cool, overcast day, or in the early evening. Bright, sunny, warm days are a recipe for failure. After transplanting, keep soil damp until plants are established. Shield seedlings from wind, frost, heavy rain and hot sun with mini-tents, row covers or plastic milk jugs, minus their bottoms.


I'll finish with a word of encouragement: For those of you who never advanced beyond planting sunflower seeds in milk cartons at school, talk show host Ruth Page says you shouldn't fret. "If you've never started seeds don't worry too much about it. Remember, nature has designed them to want to grow. You and the garden seeds have exactly the same goal... what could be more reassuring?"

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