Spring is here or is it?

In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

      The warm weather that has pushed spring flowers into early bloom has certainly awakened the desire to garden.  I want to dig in the soil and plant something!  Indeed, I have already planted lettuce in the cold frame and St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day to plant peas.  I may also plant some kale and other greens in areas where they may be covered if the mercury dips too far.  However, I am keenly aware that it is just too early for planting most warm-season crops and annual flowers.
     Some vegetables, herbs and flowers do very well planted indoors and then transplanted into the garden after the May 10 frost-free date.  Read your seed packets.  Most will tell you if a particular plant may be grown indoors for transplants.  In most cases, it will say that the seed may be planted six to eight weeks prior to the frost-free date.  In Southern Indiana, that date is around May 10, so we are now in the indoor planting period.
     First, get your pots ready.  If re-using containers from previous years, empty out the old soil and wash the pots with hot water.  You do not have to use the fancy trays used in commercial greenhouses.  Any pot that has good drainage will do.
     Next, get the potting mix ready.  Do not use soil from your garden and I do not recommend using potting soil, especially if the soil you have contains fertilizer.  The seed contains all of the nutrients needed by the tender plant for its first weeks, and the added nutrients may result in spindly plants.  I suggest using a soil-free mix, usually containing mostly coir or peat.  You will notice that bags of seed-starting mix are very light.  This is because there is little moisture in them.  Before you use the soil, slowly mix water into it.  You do not want it soggy, but such mixes do not absorb water easily if you do not add the water before planting.
     You may need to get the seeds ready also.  Most seeds do quite well planted directly into the potting mix, but some seeds need special treatment.  Read the packet to see if soaking the seed is recommended.  Other seeds need to have a cold treatment, which may be accomplished by putting the seed in the refrigerator for a few days.  Other seed need to be scarified by breaking the outside layer with a knife, file or rough sandpaper to ensure rapid germination.  
     The information on the seed packet also will tell you how much potting mix needs to be used to cover the seed.  Some seeds actually need light to germinate.  Plant the seed and spray the pots with water.  You may cover the pots with clear plastic to help hold in the moisture.
     Some crops benefit from bottom heat to promote germination.  You may purchase heating mats made for this purpose, but you may also get the needed heat from your appliances.  The top of a refrigerator or freezer may be warm enough to provide the heat needed, and since light is not needed by most seeds at this stage, the pots may be left on the appliances until the seeds germinate and then moved to an area where they young plants will receive light.
     If you are depending on the sun to provide the light needed for plant growth, you will have to rotate the pots frequently to ensure the tender plants do not grow toward the window.  You may decide to invest in some grow lights.  This is not as expensive as it once was.  Today, there are LED grow lights that are inexpensive.  As the plants grow, you may need to adjust the lights and eventually remove the plastic coverings.  Keep the plants watered and you should have some healthy transplants by the time the weather warms enough for outdoor planting.

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