Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing plants from seeds is less expensive, more rewarding

Steps to seeding. Fill the container up to ¾ inch from the top with the planting medium.  Moisten before filling if it is dry.  Make sure the container has adequate drainage.  If the container is made of fiber or peat, it must be watered thoroughly before medium is placed in it.  Otherwise it will act as a wick and pull moisture out of the medium later.

Level and gently firm the planting medium.  Sow the seeds uniformly.  Some seeds are large enough to individually place.  Sowing very small seeds can be difficult.  It is far too easy to sow them thickly, because they cannot be handled individually.  The fastest procedure is to begin by spilling the seeds into a shallow container, such as the lid of a jar.  Then pick up a tiny pinch and drop a trail of seeds across the planting medium by rubbing the finger and thumb together as the hand moves across the surface.

Sow large-seeded vegetables such as cucumber, cantaloupe and watermelon directly into peat or coco coir pots.  Sow larger seeds vertically in the container or the chance of rot increases.  Plant two to three seeds per pot and later thin to one plant.  This saves later transplanting and means less root damage and planting time.

Cover the seeds with dry seedling mix.  The depth of covering depends on the size of the seeds.  Moisten the surface with a fine mist, or place the container into a pan of warm water, allowing the medium to absorb the water upwards.  Buy standard flats without holes.  Use these flats underneath the flats or pots with holes that were used for planting.  Cover the planting medium with plastic gro-domes to hold in moisture.  Complete germination stations and mini hot houses are available.

Place the seeds in a warm location for germination.  Generally a range from 65 to 75 degrees F is best.  Do not place covered containers in direct sunlight.  To keep soil warm use a germination seedling heat mat.  Watch daily for germination.  When seedlings appear, move containers to bright light.  Remove the plastic dome when germination is well under way.  Do this gradually.  Prop open the plastic dome for a day or two before removing completely.  Seed containers must not be allowed to dry out.  Seeds are quickly killed if allowed to dry during germination.

 "Damping-off". When seedlings fall over at the ground line, they are being attacked by a fungus disease known as "damping-off."  If only a few seedlings are attacked, dig out and discard the infected plants and soil.  Drench the entire soil mass with a fungicide such as Benomyl if the disease is scattered throughout the flat.

High temperatures, poor light or excess moisture simulate spread of the disease by weakening plants to make them more susceptible to it.  The best control is cleanliness and prompt action when the disease appears.

Growing Seedlings. After seeds have germinated, promptly give the best possible growing conditions to insure stocky vigorous plants for outdoor planting. 

Light — Seedlings must receive bright light promptly after germination.  Place them in a bright, south window if possible.  If a large, bright window is not available, place the flats under fluorescent lights.  Place the seedlings about six inches from the tubes and keep lights on for 14 to 16 hours each day.  As seedlings grow, the lights may need to be raised, to prevent leaf burn as seedlings touch the tubes.

Temperature — Most annual plants and vegetables prefer night temperatures - between 60 and 65 degrees.  Day temperatures may run about 10 degrees higher.  If temperatures are warmer than these, leggy plants will result.  Cool season vegetable crops and a few flowers already listed prefer night temperatures no higher than 55 degrees and day temperatures near 65.  An unused bedroom, basement or sun porch are often a good location.

Moisture — Keep flats moist at all times but never soggy.  Let the surface of the soil medium dry out between watering, but do not allow seedlings to wilt at any time.  Seedlings should never go through the night with wet leaves.  This will lead to disease problems.

Fertilization — Seedlings will need some fertilization for best development.  Use a soluble plant fertilizer as sold in garden centers.  Young, tender seedlings are easily damaged by too much fertilizer.  Apply fertilizer at about half recommended strength a few days after seedlings have germinated.  After that, fertilize at two-week intervals with the dilution recommended by the manufacturer.

Transplanting. When seedlings have developed at least one set of true leaves and are large enough to handle, transplant to individual pots or space out in flats.  Failure to transplant promptly results in crowded, spindly seedlings that may not be able to develop properly.

Moving plants outdoors. Plants that have been growing indoors cannot be planted abruptly into the garden without injury.  To prevent any damage, they should be "hardened" before planting outdoors.  This is the adjustment period between the growing condition inside and the growing condition outside.

This process should be begun at least two weeks before planting in the garden.  If possible, plants should be moved to cooler temperatures outdoors in a shady location.  When first putting the seedlings outdoors, keep in the shade.  Gradually move plants into sunlight for short periods each day.  Gradually increase the length of exposure.  Do not put tender seedlings outdoors on windy days or when temperature is below 45 degrees.  After proper hardening, plant outdoors and light frost will not damage them.

Plants grown in coir pots or peat pellets can be planted intact.  Breaking up the base of the peat pot often helps improve root penetration and drainage.  Thoroughly cover the top edges of the pot or break off the top edge to soil level.  If this is not done, it will act as a wick and draw moisture from around the root ball.  This delays root penetration or even causes the plant to dry up on hot sunny days. 

Transplant on cloudy overcast days, if possible.

Jim Gainan is VP/Shareholder of Gainan's Flower and Garden Center in Billings.