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

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

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

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