Ann Wright: Start seed indoors to get a jump on spring |

Ann Wright: Start seed indoors to get a jump on spring

Ann Wright

Although the sun is out, it’s cold! Garden soil is still very damp and too cold to plant outside. This is a good time to plan what to plant and perhaps to start some seed indoors to get a jump on spring growth. Starting seed indoors can save money and provides a wider choice of things to grow. When selecting seed to start indoors, consider planting something you’ve not tried before, or stick with vegetables and fruits that you like – Master Gardeners say, “grow what you like to eat.” Select disease-resistant seed for plants that adapt to our foothill climate.

Consider soil temperature and germination times. Optimum soil temperature for germination of warm-season, summer vegetables ranges from 75 to 95 F. Seeds for most cool weather crops will not germinate if the soil temperature is less than 40 F. Seed that takes a long time to germinate is more vulnerable to disease. Seed death and seedling “damping off” is caused by soil pathogens that cause seeds to rot before they germinate, or stems of seedlings to decay at the soil line. The first sign of damping-off is the failure of plants to emerge. Seeds may become soft and mushy, or seedlings will darken and shrivel. To control damping-off, use high-quality planting material with good drainage. Pasteurized seed starting mix can be purchased, or a home-made mix can be treated by heating the mix to 140 and held at that temperature for at least 30 minutes. To reduce survival of the pathogens, remove and discard diseased plants and sterilize seed-starting containers. Containers can be scrubbed clean and sanitized with a 1:9 bleach solution (1-part household bleach to 9-parts water), rinsed well and allowed to air-dry.

Once all seed-starting materials are on hand, it’s time to plant! Moisten the seed-mix with warm water until it’s the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Fill planting trays with mix and tamp down slightly. Choose the seeds to be planted – try to plant seeds with similar growth rates in the same tray. Use a pencil, stick or narrow dowel to make indentations into the seed mix to the desired depth (the optimum planting depth is usually noted on the seed packet). Plant a few seeds in a single hole, or scatter smaller seeds across a tray of planting medium. Once the seeds are in place, cover with a layer of planting mix and just slightly press down with fingers to ensure there is soil mix in contact with the seed. Mist with water and place in warm sunny area or on heat-mats (especially made for seed starting). Plastic covers can also be used to maintain moisture and warmth. Don’t allow the seed trays to dry out! One more essential tip: don’t forget the label! Label the tray with the type of seed started and the date planted.

As soon as the seeds have germinated, light will be required for growth. A sunny location in the house, light via a cold-frame outside, or indoors using light from fluorescent tubes is adequate. (Some studies have shown that good results can be achieved by mixing florescent tubes, for example using one warm tube and one cool tube in each fixture.) Special “grow lights” are not required for starting plants. Keep the seedlings close to the light source, and as seedlings grow raise the lights.

For those who have never started seed inside, start small. Plant just a few seeds and experiment – see what does well, and what doesn’t. As spring arrives, there will be an abundance of plants available for purchase. But for those who can’t wait, start some broccoli, kale or spinach now – in time to move outside in the cool of spring. Warmer season plants can be started indoors and set out when soil warms, and once the danger of frost has passed (the last frost date at lower elevations is March 10, while at the highest elevations in the foothills, the last frost date is as late as May 10).

For more information about planting vegetables in the foothills, check the Master Gardener website at and look at the side menu for Home Vegetable Gardening and scroll down to explore the vegetable germination charts.

Master Gardeners are on hand today for the workshop, “Pollinators – Understand and Encourage These Vital Little Critters” from 10 a.m. to noon at the Elks Lodge in Grass Valley (109 S. School Street). On Feb. 15, learn about straw bale gardening and on Feb. 22, “Native Plant Propagation: Hints for Some Tricky Favorites” will be presented. These workshops are also from 10 a.m. to noon at the Elks Lodge in Grass Valley. For questions, call 530-273-0919.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.

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