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Start Your Engines

The garden’s neo-natal wards will be popping up all across this country over the next several weeks. Like so many other anxious gardeners, I too am disinfecting, mounting lights to rival I am sure even the most sophisticated “gro-op” and sorting through a rather sizeable container of “got-to-have” seed packs. There really is something inherently common for all gardeners and that is the absolute need to get a head start on things and get our private stash of special plants germinated. Germination and the maintenance thereafter can pose some difficulty for first timers; there are a few tricks of the trade that are well to be observed.

Cleanliness can’t be emphasized enough as lack of sterile or extremely clean conditions has been the cause of many a lost crop. I prefer to use brand new containers that I further wipe down with a germicidal moist wipe that would be used in the home just to ensure a sterile area. If you are re-using seeding containers soak and scrub them in warm, soapy water, rinse with clear water and then dip in a 1:10 solution of household bleach and water or use a moist anti-bacterial wipe for the final touch. The seeding mix itself will be sterile so there is no need to re-cook it. Many older garden references, including a couple of my books, suggest a method of home sterilizing media; I would not attempt this now as seedling mixes are common and easy to find. Take care to select a “seeding mix” as they are quite different from standard potting mixes. Typically they are light, fine textured, almost dust-like and especially formulated for the rigours of the neo-natal plant ward. A very good piece of equipment is a sieve either home made from screening, a culinary variety or one that is designed for the plant lover.

One of the most useful tricks is the method of watering the seeding bed. Before that however, we need to get the germination bed ready. I like to use a pan, which is a plastic container that is squat with a wide mouth, often referred to as a bulb pan. The seeding mix is poured in and tamped down so as to ensure that there are no air pockets. You can use another clean pan to press the media down, this provides a smooth seeding surface. The reason that smooth is important is so that finer seeds can be seen which helps to avoid over-sowing and crowding. Open the seed packet and fold a crease in one end, forming a sort of spout. Aiming your seed packet lightly tap your holding hand, this graduates the seed flow. ALWAYS under sow, never clump and try to fill the container, this will cause no end of problems later on. Now, the cool watering part. Fill a shallow baking pan with warm water and set the seeding pan in slowly. The seedling pan’s dry media will slowly take up the warm water and moisten the entire container without disturbing the newly sown seed. Once convinced that the media is moist, remove from the watering pan and sift a very little bit of dry seeding media over the seeding pan to cover the seeds. The dry media will absorb the perfect amount of moisture from the pan without further work. Most seeds should be covered.

Covering the seeding pan with plastic wrap or a glass sheet is wise, this will keep the humidity at the appropriate level. Warm conditions are best, so if there is room atop an appliance like the refrigerator, set your new seeding pans there until germination occurs. Once the seedlings appear, it’s wise to remove the plastic wrap gradually and move the pan into indirect light. Germinating seeds do not require light until they have emerged. One of the most common errors post germination is stretching because of lower light conditions. If you are planning to place your crop under artificial light, the tubes should only be a few inches from the tops of the plants, and adjustable also.

Fungal problems are common this early in the seedling’s life, so apply a light dusting of cinnamon or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) as a preventative and increase the air circulation around your tender crop. Naturally increased air flow translates to drier media, so watch the watering. I strongly suggest bottom watering as suggested for the first saturation.

Good luck and welcome to almost spring!


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