Regardless of how eager we are to rush the season and see tiny translucent green transplants peeking above the soil, it’s critical to plant and care for them appropriately in order to have stocky, tough transplants for the garden.
First of all, assemble your supplies. You’ll need a container or containers to grow your seedlings in. The type of container is really not important as long as it drains well. You can use whatever is handy — milk cartons, egg cartons, plastic pots or anything else that needs recycling will work just fine as long as it has adequate drainage.
Flats (low-sided trays of wood or plastic) work well for broadcasting seed as long as you are meticulous about transplanting the tiny seedlings as soon as they are ready. If you don’t get to it, trying to separate them once they have a lot of roots does considerable damage. Plastic flats with clear plastic covers are excellent choices.
If you have individual plastic pots left from last year’s garden, by all means use them. Newspaper cups are easily made by wrapping strips around a tomato paste can and gluing them.
Next you will need potting soil or seed starter mix. Although the container type isn’t critical, the choice of planting medium can make or break your transplants. Roots require air and water, so the soil must allow plenty of air space and drainage, while at the same time retain water and nutrients.
Picture tiny seeds putting out even tinier roots, and you will understand why the medium must be loose and well-drained to keep from smothering the roots, yet must retain enough moisture to prevent the delicate roots from drying.
Soil used straight from the garden is not appropriate because it is heavy, may get quite mucky when wet and may also contain fungal spores or insect eggs.
Soil-less potting mixes provide a sterile, comfortable milieu for the seedlings to become established. Most soil-less mixtures include peat moss, vermiculite and perlite in varying proportions, and some mixes also contain shredded bark.
They are sterilized to be free of pests, diseases and weeds. Although it is possible to mix your own, commercial mixes are readily available at most garden centers, easy to use and relatively inexpensive.
Look for a mix that is specialized for seed-starting since standard potting soils may be too heavy or dense for easy seed starting.
Most seed starting mixes contain a milled sphagnum moss which contains a natural fungicide that can help prevent that scourge of seedlings, damping off (when the seedling rots at the soil line and falls over).
You will need labels and markers. Recycle any type of plastic or even popsicle sticks. Slats from old mini blinds are perfect. Use permanent marker, pencil or true ballpoint ink so that water doesn’t make your writing run and become unreadable.
Then you will of course need seeds and once you’ve planted them, it’s a good idea to sprinkle the top with milled sphagnum moss as a further protection against fungal disease.
Next time, we’ll talk about timing your planting so the transplants are perfect for garden planting at the appropriate time.
Kate Jerome, a Kenosha writer and teacher, holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and is the former Urban Farm director at Gateway Technical College. She is the owner of the consulting business Kate Jerome’s Garden to Kitchen. Her website is www.kjerome.com.