Growing Seedlings

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Container Gardening Essentials 

Containers may be a fallback option for those would-be gardeners who don’t have a garden, but they’re also essential tools for the dirt gardener. Unless a plant grows from seed sown in the ground (or somehow magically appears there as a volunteer) or is transplanted from elsewhere, chances are it started its life in a pot.

Propagation, particularly seed germination, is a subject dear to my heart, so let’s start with a short sales pitch for those who have never tried it. Growing new plants from seeds is satisfying on many levels. The do-it-yourself approach is far less expensive than buying potted herbs from a reputable garden center, with more variety available to you, and you can end up not just with a new plant to try, but with as many as you want and some to trade or give away. Starting with seeds can be surprisingly easy and can produce sturdy little plants that have a better start on life than those spindly herbal specimens at the corner discount store ever got. Your starts won’t have endured the hardships of wilting from neglect, struggling for light or being transported across the country.

A less tangible benefit of seed germination is the wonder of it all. After your careful attention and material support, that moist seed opens up and a cotyledon — the first leaf or pair of leaves to emerge — lifts itself up and reaches for the light. The process might make you feel like a kid again.

Let There Be Light

Probably the most important requirement for success in growing seedlings is a steady source of strong light. If a windowsill is all you’ve got, go for it, but artificial lighting is your best bet because of the amount of control it gives you. An inexpensive, utilitarian 4-foot workshop light with fluorescent bulbs from a hardware store works splendidly, but many more kinds of fluorescent and wide-spectrum grow-lights are available, including some that can be installed in regular lamps.

The ability to position the light exactly where you want it in relation to the plants growing beneath it is invaluable. A workshop light, for example, can be suspended by lightweight chain, letting you raise the light as the plants grow. The light source should be close to the top of the seedlings (without actually touching, which can burn them).

Find a place in your home where you can set up a grow-light (or as many as you want). A basement is ideal because it can spare you the trouble of worrying about making a mess, and the cooler temperatures there can help ensure slow, steady growth rather than the more rapid growth that occurs in the warmth of a house. When I was germinating lots of seeds for a large garden, I hung banks of lights and turned my basement into a greenhouse each spring for the seedlings, but I didn’t move them down there until they had sprouted, as the warmth upstairs aids germination. If you don’t have a basement, try a spare bedroom or an extra closet; look around and you probably can find some space even in cozy quarters.

On Your Mark, Get Set

Once you’ve got your space and a light fixture in place, be sure to protect any indoor surfaces from water damage, either by laying down some plastic or by positioning the containers in flats or saucers that will catch the overflow, or both. Take care especially on any wood surfaces, as moisture can seep through and do some damage — no matter how carefully you water.

Whether you’re sowing seeds in flats or individual pots, wash all your containers to ensure you’re not introducing any lingering disease from a previous occupant of the pot. Soaking them in a 10 percent bleach solution will handle that problem. At this point, you’ll be happy you saved all those empty pots. Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of never tossing out an extra pot of any size because, as long as it has drainage holes, it eventually will find a use.

For sowing seeds, particularly the tiny ones, a finely textured potting mix designed for that purpose can make the job easier. Prepare your pots or flats by filling them with moist potting mix and smoothing out the surface. You’ll also want to have on hand some masking tape, Popsicle sticks or some other way to add labels to the pots or rows in a flat. A pencil or ballpoint pen is handy because moisture won’t smear the writing the way it might with a felt-tip pen. If you’re sprouting only one type of seed, you’re fine; otherwise don’t trust your memory; Once those seeds sprout, you won’t be able to tell the little green things apart.

Go Sow

If you’re starting with purchased seed packets, the directions on the packet will tell you how deep to sow the seed and how far apart. Some seeds need light to germinate, so they are sown on the surface of the soil; some, including those that are slow to germinate, may need some help in terms of soaking them first or nicking the seed surface to get them started. If you’re starting from seed that you have gathered yourself or collected from a friend’s garden, a good reference book (such as Rodale’s The New Seed-Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel) can be invaluable. A penchant for experimentation helps as well.

The keys to sprouting a seed are warmth, moisture and patience. Keep a spray bottle nearby so you can mist the soil surface regularly, whenever you’re passing by. Some people add bottom heat to speed up the process or cover the flats with a clear plastic lid to hold the moisture in the air around the seeds. However you do it, pay close attention so they don’t dry out. When you water, do so carefully so the seeds aren’t dislodged and floating away from the spot you’ve labeled; pouring the water into your hand first and then letting it fall away in drops is one way.

Now watch and wait, and you’ll be rewarded. Once they sprout, move the container under the grow-light, positioning it closely to the top of the plants. When the seedlings have their second set of true leaves (think of the first set of leaves as the plant equivalent of training wheels), then you can transplant the seedlings into their own small, individual pots. You can use a fork to lift them out of the potting mix and gently tease the roots loose from their neighbors. If your starters are growing together thickly and more have sprouted than you need, you can avoid disturbing the roots too much by cutting other stems at the surface, leaving only the one you are transplanting.

Once the seedlings are growing in their own pots, you’re on your way. Check them daily, keep them uniformly moist until they are established, and repot into bigger pots as they grow.

Pot Spotlight

If you’re just starting out with seed sprouting, here’s an herb so easy even kids can do it: nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). The seeds are big and fat, pea-sized, making them very easy to work with. They germinate easily and quickly, and the plants they produce offer so much — beautiful, bright edible flowers in shades of red, orange and yellow, and a pleasant peppery taste to the leaves and flowers that makes them easy to use in the kitchen. They are well suited to life in a container, and they can brighten any porch or deck.

Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer and editor in Las Vegas, where she grows herbs in containers.