This winter has been one most folks will not soon forget – cold, wet, and even white with a few days of rare snow. One can go stir crazy in anticipation of spring – warm sunny weather and gardening again. Even with frost still appearing on the ground each morning, believe it or not, it's time to start preparing for and planting the vegetable garden. Most warm weather vegetables we enjoy growing and eating will be planted later on in the spring. But in order to have vegetable transplants by April, seeds can be started early indoors and grown in trays. Yes, it's late February but your spring gardening can begin now by planting seeds and watching those little plants take off.
Growing your own vegetable plants can be fun as well as a challenge. If one has the space and time, it can also be very rewarding:
Naturally, a hobby greenhouse or cold frame is the best place to start vegetable seeds since it gets plenty of light and stays fairly warm, but not everyone has them. The next best way is to start seeds indoors using seeds trays or mini greenhouses. Peat pellets and peat pots containing soilless mixes are quite popular and effective. Seeds may also be sowed directly in flats of soilless media. With either method, moisten the soilless media and place the seed tray in a plastic bag or add some type of clear plastic covering. This will create a mini greenhouse or humidity chamber needed for proper seed germination. Purchased mini greenhouses kits with clear lids make this step quite convenient. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the plastic lid or covering. When the seedlings are up and growing, transfer the young plants to larger containers to continue growing before moving them to the garden.
Healthy transplants can easily be grown at home as long as the proper temperature, adequate light, moisture, and nutrients are provided. Grow transplants in areas of the home that tend to be warm and maintain an average temperature of around 70 °F. Adding a 40-watt fluorescent light over the transplants will help supplement much needed sunlight. Placing the seed tray in front of southern exposure window is okay but is never enough light and may cause the transplants to become lanky and weak. A total of 16 to 18 hours of light per day is recommended. Be sure to occasionally rotate the transplants to prevent them from leaning toward the light. Maintain soil moisture but avoid over watering and saturating the soil as this can lead to poor growth and diseases. Water the transplants when they are slightly wilting. Transplants do not like wet feet. Once the little plants develop their first set of leaves, they will need some fertilizer to help them grow. A water-soluble starter fertilizer applied at every other watering is ideal.
Before moving the transplants to the garden, they will need to be hardened off or conditioned to growing outdoors in the elements. Start by placing the seedlings outdoors during the day and bringing them inside before dark. Avoid windy days at first as this is too harsh early on. Gradually expose them to more direct sun a little at a time and other elements. Continue this routine for two to three weeks prior to moving them to the vegetable garden.
Shane Harris is a Regional Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System serving East Central Alabama.
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