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Seed starting is a learning experience for adults as well as
I want to help a group of very young children grow
things from seed. I'm not much of a gardener myself, so I'd be
learning along with the kids. Can you tell me where to start? -
Even the oldest hand at seed starting can learn a lot by
teaching others. Since it's that time of year when many fingers are
itching to plant a seed, we'll all learn along with you.
There are many ways to grow, but in working with our own kids
and elementary school classes as Master Gardener volunteers, we've
stuck with sure-fire methods. We hope every child grows up to be a
gardener and we know that early successes go a long way in that
direction. Yet even one failure for a five year old can create a
"black thumb" self image that may last right into adulthood.
Use large seeds which are easy to handle, not so easily broken
and almost impossible to bury too deeply. Beans and peas are great.
Buy gardening seeds, not dried beans or peas sold at grocers which
may have been treated with growth inhibitors to prevent sprouting.
You can buy large packages with hundreds of seeds for just a few
dollars or several kinds in smaller packages to teach diversity as
well as gardening.
Every package has some seeds that can't grow, perhaps because
they didn't ripen properly or were damaged in packaging. So
pre-sprout seeds to identify winners: Soak them in water overnight
in a glass jar, then pour off the water. Stretch a scrap of
cheesecloth or nylon stocking over the mouth of the jar and clamp
it with a rubber band. Put a quarter-inch of water into a shallow
dish then invert the jar on the dish. Prop up one edge of the jar's
mouth so just an edge of the cloth covering, not the seeds, touches
the water and air can circulate around the seeds.
Keep the jar warm. Light is not necessary. Once a day, fill the
jar with lukewarm water and empty it to rinse the seeds. The seeds
will sprout in just a few days. Plant them as soon as you see this
The seeds need to be tucked into a medium that supplies air,
moisture and anchorage. Garden soil, even from the best garden,
can't deliver on all three when it's in a pot so never use it for
seed starting. Buy soilless potting mix from a garden center.
That's a lightweight mix of peat, bark and vermiculite or
In a bucket, wet what you need by mixing one part water with two
parts soilless mix. Pat the mix gently into containers, which can
be anything with drainage holes. Bathroom size paper drinking cups
work well. Before you fill it, use a pencil to punch a few holes in
the bottom of each cup.
Fill containers to the brim. If the potting mix is below the
rim, air will not move freely across that surface and fungi
proliferates there. Fungus can kill a seedling as it sprouts,
infecting the stem and pinching it off at the soil line. It's
called "damping off."
Plant one or more seeds in each cup. With few exceptions, seed
should be covered with a layer of soilless mix about as thick as
the seed itself.
Put the cups into a seed flat with a clear plastic bubble top.
These cost under $10 at a garden center and last for years. Or put
each cup into its own clear jar and close the lid. Now you have a
terrarium which will not need water as long as there is
Put the terrarium in good light. Window light isn't good enough!
What is good is a plain old fluorescent bulb 3 or 4 inches above
In a few days the plants will rise through the soil surface.
Take the jar lid or bubble top off when the plant touches it.
Water carefully so pots never sit in water. If you planted into
paper cups, transplant the entire cup into a bigger pot or out into
a garden when the time comes.
There's more about seed starting in books such as Nancy Bubel's
The New Seed-Starter's Handbook (Rodale Press). Or when
you order seeds by mail, you may also receive basic
Willow twigs are showing color as winter ends...
...and gardening questions start to pile up. Check the Forum! We're there for
you between weekend columns and have already posted close to 1,000
Green thumbs up
to having the hose ready to rinse roadside, salt-sprayed trees
and shrubs during a thaw. Those two or three day periods of
above-40 weather are common in the last week of February. Wash salt
off soon or it will kill new growth as the sap rises and pops loose
the protective caps that have covered the growing tips all
Green thumbs down
to expecting anti-desiccants such as Wilt-Pruf to last all
winter. That protective coating breaks down in sunlight over time
and the plants are often unprotected at the worst time, during
temperature oscillations in late winter. Reapply anti-desiccants
now on a day above 40 degrees to at-risk broadleaf evergreens such
Originally published 2/21/04
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