Last month’s column explained some benefits of establishing a garden from seed. This month, I will describe how to identify and resolve common seed-starting problems. In addition, I will explain how to prepare seedlings for transplant. 

There are several reasons seeds may not sprout. Although I often assume a thief came at night and stole them, that is not the problem. Some seeds have a low germination rate. The package will say to sow heavily if this is the case. 

Another reason could be the seeds are old. On average, seeds have an average 80% or higher germination rate the first year they are purchased. Each additional year the rate decreases by 10%. If you are uncertain how old your seeds are, place 10 in a damp paper towel and put them in a plastic bag. After a week is the percentage of seeds that are good. 

After the seeds have sprouted, they will often express deficiencies. The most common dilemma is they become “leggy” – pale, thin and tall, possibly the result of insufficient lighting or overcrowding. Leggy plants cannot withstand windy conditions. When seedlings are overcrowded, they shade each other out.

To amend this, thin the seedlings by removing the smaller ones and leaving the larger. Adding a grow light can help leggy seedlings. Place a fluorescent bulb 10-12 inches away from the seedling and an LED grow light 24-36 inches away. If the light yields a lot of heat, it should be placed higher so the plants do not burn. Keep in mind that each grow light is different, so the exact placement will vary.

Another possible issue is fungus gnats. Fungus gnats are small, grayish-black flies about 1/8-inch long with lengthy legs and transparent wings. The gnats result from over-watering. While the adult flies do not cause damage, their larvae feed on the roots, which prevents the seedlings from receiving proper nourishment. To get rid of them, let the seedlings dry out slightly between watering or hang yellow sticky traps next to the soil. If you encounter other complications, reach out to a Park County Master Gardener at parkcountymg.weebly.com/contact.html

Once the weather permits, it is essential to harden-off seedlings before transplanting them outside. Hardening-off means acclimating plants to the intense sunlight, cooler nights and less frequent watering that comes with being outdoors. There are several techniques to harden-off crops. This column will outline the basic steps. 

The hardening process begins 10-14 days before transplant. First, gradually reduce watering but not so much the plant is injured. 

Next, watch the weather forecast and learn the relative hardness of your crops. The following are common vegetables and their hardness temperatures:

60-65 degrees

• Squash

• Eggplant

• Tomatoes

• Peppers

•Zucchini

 

55-60 degrees

• Swiss Chard

• Kale

• Brussels sprouts

When the day’s forecast is at the preceding temperatures, take the seedlings outside in a shady, wind-protected area for two to three hours. I put my plants in a storage tote to offer protection from our Wyoming wind. 

Be creative with ways to protect your seedlings. For example, cut the bottom off a two-gallon jug and place it over the seedling. Bring the plants back inside after the alotted time has passed. 

After three to four days, introduce the plants to the direct sunlight for one to two hours. Continue this process for seven to fourteen days, each day increasing the amount of exposure to the outdoor elements. Also, consider growing some extra plants in case they’re needed. If they’re not, take the opportunity to share a plant and spread a smile.

If you understand your climate and learn from the trial-and-error that gardening presents, you will be on track to having a successful season. Also, listen to your plants, let them tell you what they need, and your seedlings will flourish. 

Thank you for reading and if you have questions or comments, please reach out to me at katherineclarkson2@gmail.com.

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