Upping the ante with seedlings in the winter
Gambling hasn’t always been legal in Mississippi, but gardeners have been doing it openly for generations. Unfortunately, the house usually has better odds than even us old hands.
Many gardeners successfully chance their luck by sowing their prospects directly onto fresh dirt when the soil warms up in April. But getting a head start indoors is at best a back-alley wager because, without controlling variables, the bet often doesn’t pay off very well, wasting supplies and precious time, and, worse, dashing hopes.
Still, it’s our best shot at lots of plants from a small investment and heirloom plants and wildflowers that can’t be found at local garden centers. So, to up the ante, here are some of my tricks, which by the way are exactly how my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and most other successful green-houseless gardeners do it.
First, start with fresh seed, either from a local seed rack or online; my favored heirloom seed companies are Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, and Seed Savers Exchange. There are others, but I know these folks, been to their places, respect their ethics, dedication, and quality.
I also save seed myself from wildflowers and other non-hybrid flowers and unusual veggies, especially my favorite hot peppers, burgundy okra, and various butterfly vines.
These usually sow a few of their own seeds, but because I mulch a lot, which prevents both weeds and good guys, their progeny crop up mostly alongside my flagstone walk or other outside-the-lines spots. So, because I’m usually too busy to do a lot of transplanting at the right time, I keep a few seed to scatter when the soil warms in April.
All my seeds, both store-bought and those from my garden or collected from friends and stored in labeled paper envelopes, are boxed in a cool, dark corner on my office desk where I won’t forget them next year. They’d last for two or three years in my refrigerator, but c’mon - who really waits that long?
There are three things seeds need to sprout, which are not easy to maintain indoors: Moisture, warmth, humidity. I crowd little containers on trays that hold a little water to keep the potting soil barely moist from the bottom up, and cover the pots or whole trays with clear plastic to create a humid micro-environment. Then I place them atop my ‘fridge or in the laundry room, which are the warmest spots in the house.
Soon as the seedlings appear, I remove the plastic to prevent mold and root and stem diseases, and start watering less often but from the top to encourage deep roots.
Here’s the real kicker, the major step that most newbies skip to their later dismay; it is the difference between the sturdy, stocky plants that greenhouse growers produce, and the long, skinny, weak stems that doom a lot of home-grown seedlings to failure.
As soon as the seedlings put on their second set or leaves, I move the trays outside, every single hour the temperatures are above 50 or so. The cool temperatures, real sun, humidity, and stimulating motion of little breezes cause stems to be stocky and short, unlike those grown solely indoors. The trays are easy to move in and out as needed
I keep mine raised on little rocks to keep snails and crickets out of play, and fertilize at half strength. When the seedlings have three or four sets of leaves, I gently prick them apart (holding by leaves, not tender stems), and repot or plant.
These simple tricks give me a better hand in the game of gardening.