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Seed starting a good way to proceeed even though a challenging process

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I am often asked if I have started seeds inside yet. Years ago, I would start many seeds under lights, but after a whole flat of impatiens succumbed to 'damping off disease,' my enthusiasm was dampened.

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Now I only start seedlings that are difficult to find locally or are picked over or overgrown at the time that I am ready to plant outside. This year I will order and start the seeds of zinnia 'Magellan,' which is an excellent dwarf zinnia. Six-packs are available at some local greenhouses, but often the color choice is limited. Zinnias have a short germination period and they must be planted out after all chance of frost is past and the soil is warm.

It is a challenge to grow plants with a long growing season. If you start too early, the plants tend to become tall and leggy and there is a chance of the dreaded 'damping off,' a fungal disease. It is tricky to get the correct temperature and light conditions for each variety. The moisture level must be constantly monitored.

Thus said, starting seed is a fun occupation while winter and our cold spring keep us indoors. A few plants that can be started as early as February are onion seeds, chives, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, pansies, impatiens, coleus and daisies. Geraniums should have been started in January.

The first thing to do is to get your supplies and area ready. You may want to invest in special grow lights, but you can have good results with standard 4-foot fluorescent shop lights. In either case, replace the bulbs each year.

Recycle leftover plastic six-packs, food containers like cottage cheese, yogurt cups and bakery clamshells. Poke holes in the bottom of them and set the pots in a tray so that they can be bottom watered. Peat pots or peat pellets are another option. Flats may be used, but have drawbacks. Only one type of seed may be planted in a flat as germination times vary. Seedlings planted in flats eventually have to be transplanted into individual pots and you risk root damage. Some seedlings, such as zinnia and nasturtium, don't like to have their roots disturbed.

Garden soil and even regular potting soil is too heavy for seed planting. Buy a fine seed-starting mix that is sterile and moisten it before you plant your seeds. Put the soil in a pail, add warm water, stir and wait eight hours. Fill the pots and press down so that it has watering space on top.

Small seeds can be a little difficult to space out. Take a 3 x 5 inch file card and fold it down the middle. Pour a few seeds in the crease and gently push individual seeds onto the soil with a toothpick. Put two or three seeds in each pot, as not all may sprout. Push the seeds into the soil with an eraser end of a pencil to a depth of three times their diameter. It is probably best to scatter very fine seeds in a flat, dust them with fine soil and tamp down. Don't cover seeds that need light to germinate. The seed packet should give this information. Mist the soil gently with a spray bottle or submerse the container in water and allow it to draw up moisture from the bottom. Cover the container loosely with plastic wrap or use the flat's dome.

The seeds should sprout at a room temperature of 65 to 70 degrees, but bottom heat is beneficial. Use a heating mat or place the flat on top of a warm appliance, such as the refrigerator until sprouts appear. Once the seedlings appear, place them two to three inches below the light source and remove the plastic cover. The seedlings will need 8 to 12 hours a day of natural light or 12-14 hours under fluorescent lights.

Begin fertilizing at ¼ strength every other week once the true leaves (not the first two seedling leaves) appear. Check the moisture level daily. The seedlings should never dry out, yet the media should not be constantly wet. Keep a fan going in the room to help prevent 'damping off' and to promote strong sturdy stems.

Transplant the seedlings from a flat once two true leaves have formed. Pick them up with a leaf, not the stem, using a tongue depressor with a notch in one end. If more than one seed sprouted in the individual pots, select the strongest seedling and remove the others by cutting, not pulling.

Calculate when to start your seeds by counting back from the last expected frost date, which is May 20 in our area. The seed to transplant time should be on the seed package. About a week or two before you plan to plant your seedlings outside begin hardening them off. Take them outside to a sheltered spot for an hour the first day and gradually leave them out for a longer time each day.

Breitling is a longtime

West Fargo resident and

avid gardener always in

search of new ideas.

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