Gardeners itching for gardening season

In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener\

     As we get to end of winter, gardeners get anxious for planting.  It is too early for many flowers and most garden crops, but we may start plants from seed to have ready when warm weather really gets here.  We have discussed the basics of planting seeds—using sterile pots and potting media and keeping the containers moist, but not soggy.  Light is the remaining essential, and is the one that requires the most intervention in this natural process.  Of course, a climate-controlled greenhouse is the best place to do this, but that option is not open to most people.
     Many first-time gardeners think that placing a tray of panted seeds on a window sill will be good enough.  Indeed, if the window gets adequate sun, the seeds will germinate in a few days and growth of the chosen crop will begin.  However, that window light is often not sufficient to produce healthy plants.  At the very least, one will have to be diligent to turn the tray often—at least a couple of times a day, to keep the young plants growing straight.  Early growth is usually rapid, and the plants will be affected by the light received then for the rest of their lives.  If they begin life leaning toward the sun in one direction, they may never be straight when moved to the garden.
     Anyone wishing to grow a lot of plants in the home will have to resort artificial lighting.  Books have been written about this subject, so this column will not be able to cover all aspects of the light needed for germination and photosynthesis.  Light is strength-giving for plants, and it needs to be bright and steady for the best results.  For the best results, you may purchase “grow lights” for your plants.  These lights have been manufactured to produce the particular light wavelengths for plant growth.  You may use fluorescent light fixtures with one “hot” tube and one “cold” tube to create a similar effect.  These days, there are special LED grow lights that work very well and are probably the easiest way to supply the light your plants need.
     You may need to do some research to determine the amount of light your chosen crop needs.  Most vegetable crops will do best with bright light for at least six hours a day.  A timer on the light is the easiest way to ensure proper illumination.  The distance the light is from the plants is also important.  To get the straight growth usually desired, the light should be located about six inches above the plants.  Of course, as the plants grow, the light needs to be raised.  As I said earlier, plants grow rapidly at this stage, so you will need to check and adjust the light daily.
    Another option for starting plants is to use a hot bed.  The bed needs to be in a sunny part of the yard.  Mark the area and dig down about a foot.  The sides of the hot bed may be made from about anything available.  Wood is traditional, but concrete blocks, stones and plastic will also serve this purpose.  I have used straw bales with good success, but they will only last one season, and if you are seeking to establish a more permanent structure, you will need a more permanent siding.  The bottom layer of the hole is the heat-producing layer.  If you want to spend some money, there are electric cables that may be buried to produce the bottom heat necessary for germination.  However, the traditional heat source is manure, especially horse manure.  A six-inch layer of manure will produce a lot of heat as it decomposes.  Cover the manure with straw, shredded leaves or wood chips and top everything with a generous layer of finished compost or other planting medium.  The hot bed will need a cover, which may be some windows or clear plastic stretched over a frame.  Using pvc pipe to make a vaulted frame is a good idea.  You will need to open the frame on warm days to keep from cooking the plants, but a hot bed is a time-honored plant starting method.  
     Spring is just around the corner.  Get growing.


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