Nurturing Spring Seedlings

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PHOTO: JEFF MERMELSTEIN
Most important, consider the needs of the plants you're starting. Change places with them on the windowsill for a moment, and make sure to properly use whatever system you choose.

There are lots of ways to nurture those tender spring seedlings before the join your spring garden.

Nurturing Spring Seedlings

My first seed-starting container was a cutoff milk carton
I’d saved from the school cafeteria. It made a fine and
frugal little plant nursery. Of course, milk cartons still
work, but today’s home gardener can also choose from a
confusing array of commercial seed-starting systems. What
about these setups–are they gimmicks or godsends? How
much do they cost, how long do they last, and how well do
they work? To find answers to these questions, I put eight
different seed-starting setups through three trial
plantings. To begin, I planted a selection of vegetables
and flowers, including lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, celery,
squash, marigolds, sweet Williams and zinnias. In later
tests, I grew only kale from the same seed batch, so I
could better compare seedling sizes.

All but one of the systems produced fine seedlings, but
there were considerable differences in how each system
worked and how easy it was to use. I comment on those
differences and share my own personal preferences here.
Still, different gardeners have different needs and
opinions. Each of the eight seed-starting systems has
supporters who prefer using it and who get good results.

So take my opinions with a grain of gardener’s salt, and
make your own choices. Most important, consider the needs
of the plants you’re starting. Change places with them on
the windowsill for a moment, and make sure to properly use
whatever system you choose:

  • Use a good soil mix. (A good homemade recipe is five parts
    shredded leaf mold or compost, five parts good fine topsoil
    and two parts of sharp sand. Adjust it if your soil is
    unusually heavy or light.)
  •  Keep the soil constantly moist until the seedlings germinate. Water thereafter whenever
    the top half-inch of soil gets dry. And frequently use a
    diluted fish emulsion or fish and kelp mix, especially if
    the seedlings are growing in a sterile soil medium.
  •  Provide adequate light. Windowsill seedlings will grow more slowly
    than those raised under artificial light. Fluorescent tubes
    work better than incandescent bulbs (they don’t roast the
    plants) but need to be set up quite close to the starts and
    raised as the plants grow. The more tubes the better.
  •  Keep seedlings warm. If you can provide bottom heat to the soil,
    the plants will do fine with cooler air temperatures.
    Indeed, up to a point, plants double their growth rate for
    every 10 degrees Fahrenheit rise in soil temperature.

Follow such steps and your seedlings won’t end up longing
for the great outdoors just so they can escape their seed
starters.