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Home & Garden: Getting a head start on Spring, early plant nurturing important

After studying the seed catalogues and perhaps a few garden books or magazines many gardeners get the itch to start some plants indoors. It can be a fun project to take your mind off winter if you have the space and time.

Once you have the seeds either through the mail or from the store look on the packages to see how long they are to be sown before the correct transplant time. Most seeds take from eight to twelve weeks to get to planting size. Do not start the seeds too early or the seedlings will be tall and gangly with weak growth. Some seeds that you can start in early February are pansies, impatiens, petunias, wax begonia and geraniums. Sow ageratum and lobelia in late February. Plant parsley on March 1 and broccoli, early cabbage, cauliflower, celery, eggplant and lettuce, on March 15. Wait with peppers until April 1 and tomatoes April 15. Use an extra calendar to note when each seed should be sown and when the seedling is to be transplanted.

While you wait for the right time to sow the seeds, get the planting materials and space ready. Purchase sterile seed starting mix to prevent 'damping off,' a fungal disease. These mixes retain moisture and provide good drainage. Moisten the mixture in a pail until it is crumbly, but not soggy before you put it in your containers. It is not necessary to have fertilizer in the mix at this time.

Collect planting containers and keep the cost down by recycling plastic flats and pots from last year. Your may also use milk cartons, plastic bakery, yogurt or margarine containers, Styrofoam cups etc. Clean recycled pots and cell packs thoroughly and rinse them with one part bleach and nine parts water to disinfect them. You may choose to buy peat pots or pellets to simplify things.

When it is time to plant fill the containers to ¼ inch from the top and plant the seeds according to the seed packet. They are usually planted three times their diameter. Sow seeds in furrows in flat containers or plant one to three seeds in individual containers and cell packs. Cover the seeds lightly with the growing medium and moisten them by misting. Mix very fine seeds with sand and sprinkle them over the surface with a saltshaker. Press them gently into the surface with a wood block.

After the seeds are planted cover the containers with clear plastic to keep in the moisture. Put pots in a clear plastic bag and tie it shut and cover flats with a sheet of plastic or plastic wrap. I like bakery shells as I can put in three or four cell packs and close the clear lid over them. You must check the containers daily to make sure they do not dry out. If you need to water them use a gentle spray or mist. Remove the covers as soon as the seedlings appear and place the plants under the lights.

Labeling is important so use Popsicle sticks, plastic spoons or cut up bleach bottles. Old mini blinds make excellent labels. Be sure to use a permanent marker.

Gentle bottom heat will insure germination. Find a warm place like the top of the refrigerator, TV or water heater to place the flats and pots until the seedlings appear. It is not necessary to have them under the lights at this time, although certain seeds require light to germinate. I read about a gardener who put an electric blanket on his ping-pong table! Commercial heating cables are available, but are very expensive.

You are fortunate if you have enough sunny windows to place your flats. If not, you will need to set up fluorescent lights. A shoplight with two new bulbs is the most economical set up. You may use two cool-whites, but using one warm and one cool is even better. Plant lights are good, however much more expensive. Do not use incandescent lighting as it has the wrong light spectrum and gives off too much heat. Hang the lights so that they are three to six inches above the little seedlings and set them on a timer for 14 to 16 hours per day. If you can rig the light fixture on pulleys it will make it easier to raise it, as the plants grow taller.

Keep the medium moist, but not wet by watering from the bottom if possible. However, don't let them sit in water after they have drawn up the moisture through the drainage holes. Allow the soil surface to dry slightly between waterings and use a small fan to keep the air moving to prevent the dreaded 'damping off' disease. Fertilize every two weeks once the first set of true leaves appears.