2009-04-02 / News

The Island Garden

Seed starting
By Roger Marshall

By now you are seeing signs that spring is almost here. Crocuses and some daffodils are up, birds are chirping away merrily, looking for food and nesting materials. Mourning doves are cooing and all is well with the gardener's world.

Now the gardener's work starts and it's time to plant seeds. Warm weather plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants can be planted in indoor trays right now. This will give you moderately large plants ready to plant outside around the middle to the end of May. I find that there is no point in planting these warm weather crops outside before this date, they don't grow. They just sit there and say "we're freezing our butts off out here, put a Wall-o-Water or mulch around us, pleeeease!" Tomatoes won't set fruit until night time temperatures are over 55 degrees anyway, so why rush it. If you have a greenhouse your tomatoes should be several inches tall by now.

Anyway, enough about when to plant, let's get on with the planting. You'll need good quality potting soil, some planting trays, some plastic wrap and a warm place to start your seeds, and of course, your seeds. Secret Garden and Jamestown Hardware have seed starting supplies in abundance. Peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes require about 60- to 75-degree heat around the planting tray to germinate otherwise germination will be slow and erratic.

Fill your pots or potting trays with damp soil. You should be able to squeeze the soil and not have any water drips fall out. That's just damp enough. Plant the seeds to a depth of the width of the seed. For really small seeds, it is easiest to sprinkle the seeds on the soil and sprinkle a little soil over them. Moisten the seeds and top layer of soil with a light spray of water, then cover the tray with a layer of plastic kitchen wrap. This keeps moisture and warmth down on the seeds. As soon as the seeds start to germinate remove the plastic wrap. When your seeds have their first pair of true leaves (not the cotyledons) it's time to transplant. Loosen the soil and lift the plant by a leaf. Do not grab the stem, you may crush it and ruin your plant. Put each plant in a separate pot and label it. I use a magic marker written on craft sticks as cheap labels that can go into the garden (Baker's Pharmacy has craft sticks). They eventually rot down leaving no trace, unlike plastic plant labels.

When transplanting, set tomato plants deep into the soil. You can bury the stem right up to the first set of leaves. The buried part of the stem turns into roots to give the plant a strong root system before you set it out. Note that you can only do this with tomatoes. Peppers and eggplants should be buried to the same level as they were before transplanting.

You can also start cabbage and other brassicas, leeks, onions, beets, and celery or celeriac if you have a warm spot to start them now. If not wait a month or so and start them in a cold frame. Herbs such as parsley, thyme, basil and oregano can be started indoors right now as well. Simply put a few seeds in a pot and let them grow.

You can also "chit" your potatoes now - that is, put your seed potatoes in the warm and let them sprout before planting them in the garden. It is said that this increases the potato yields. Peas can also be directly seeded into the garden at this time. Simply dig over a patch of garden, make a row about three inches wide and plant your seeds. Put twigs and short branches near the peas to give them something to climb.

If you are growing artichokes, they too, should be planted out right about now. They will need some cooler weather to set fruit this season unless you are growing the Violetta variety that set fruit the first season. I find these plants to be much more prickly than Green Globe, though.

Of course, if you don't start your seeds this week, most of the garden centers will have plants on sale in about a month or six weeks, so there's no rush if you forget.

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