Gearing up for starting seeds

“It’s 17 and sunny.”  the morning show host said brightly.  Did I hear him right?  Yikes!  Wasn’t it 55 yesterday?  No, wait, that was Tuesday, or was it Monday?  Oh, well.  Tomorrow is supposed to be in the 50s and looks like 60 is coming a couple of days after that.  But, basketball tournaments haven’t started yet so there’s still time for one more blizzard.

To some this may sound insane, but to those of us who live here, it’s simply called Minnesota.

Bright, sunny mornings make me smile and honestly, I prefer the 10 – 20 range more than the 20s and 30s.  Why? Because when we get into the 30s and get snow-melt the air is damp and as we say in Minnesota “it’s not the cold so much, it’s the dampness, it cuts right through ya”.  Despite the chill in the air I’m so excited to get the garden going.  In March?  Sure!  Okay, technically not outside, although you can sow seeds in snow, I’ve yet to experiment with that and this year is not the year to try considering we’ve been looking at brown grass far more than a white blanket of snow.

Snow or no snow though, it’s almost time to get seeds started inside.  Do you have everything you need?  A sunny window?  Plant Lights?  Seeds?  Seed trays?  Growing medium (soil)? Early March is a good time to get all of these things ready to go: plant lights set up, seeds ordered and delivered, garden calendar and garden journal ready.

Most warm season plants need to be started inside about 6-8 weeks prior to the average last frost.  In our area, that’s anytime between March 20th and April 3rd.  So if you haven’t gotten your supplies together, now’s the time to do it!

Seed catalogs typically start coming in the mail in January.  When they start filling my mailbox, my heart picks up a little speed, a smile crosses my face.  I immediately transport myself from a cold winter day to a warm sunny day in the middle of August, out in the garden with everything at its peak…. picking sun-ripened tomatoes, smelling the scent of basil and thyme as I brush against them on my stroll through the back yard.   And the raspberries!  Hanging there, just waiting to be plucked from their canes and popped into my mouth where the sweet burst of flavor sends tingles of happiness down to my toes.  But alas… it’s not August, it’s March.  But I can dream and so can you.  After all, it’s these dreams, these visions of perfection that get us in the spirit of gardening even when Mother Nature isn’t ready for us to play the soil just yet.

Back to seed catalogs.  If you haven’t ordered seeds… Do. It. NOW!  When perusing catalogs though and making those final decisions, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  First, make sure the plants you select are suitable for your climate, and by climate, I mean cold hardiness zone.  Minnesota used to range from zone 4b in the south to 2b in the north, but in January 2012, they updated the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to reflect recent temperature changes and shifted Minnesota into a slightly warmer zone.  Our new zones range from 5a in the south to 3a in the north.  So what does this mean?  The plant hardiness zone map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature.  What does that mean for gardeners?  It’s a tool to help us determine which plants are most likely to thrive in our location.  When looking at seed catalogs, plant catalogs or plant tags in the nursery or garden center it should show the cold hardiness for each (perennial) plant.  For example, say I’m looking through the Seed Savers Exchange catalog (one of my favorites) and as I cruise through the description for “Oregano, Greek” – I see “Perennial in zones 4-9”.  If I live in northern Minnesota, in zone 3a, I think to myself, “nope, not a perennial here” but if I live in southern Minnesota, in zone 5a, I think, “hmm… maybe that’s why my oregano came through the winter last year”.

You typically won’t see a lot of cold hardiness information noted in fruit and vegetable seed catalogs.  Why?  Because the majority of these plants are annuals.  We plant them, grow them, harvest their fruit and they complete their life cycle all in one season.  However, perennial herbs, fruits and vegetables, perennial flowers, as well as trees and shrubs, will include cold hardiness information because they will continue living, growing and producing fruit year after year in the proper growing conditions.  What if you fall outside the perennial zones?  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a shot at growing the plant, it just means you’ll need to think of it as an annual whereas other areas will think of it as a perennial.

The other thing to note, is if you will be growing the plant for its fruit, you want to make sure your climate has enough warm days during the growing season to allow the fruit to mature.  This will also be noted in the catalogs or on seed packets.  They will state “65 days to maturity”  or “75 days from transplant” (“transplant” signals that these need to be started from seed indoors prior to planting outside).  They may state “50 days”, they may state (with peas, for example) “Shell, 50-55 days” or they may state “Edible podded, 60 days”.  Basically what all of this means is that they need to have the number of days (shown on the package or in the catalog) during the growing season (average last frost in the spring until average first frost in the fall) to be able to produce fruit.  Keep in mind if you only have 75 days in your growing season you would be cutting it pretty close to not getting any fruit if you choose something in the 65+ range.  It would be a huge bummer to nurture a plant all summer to run out of warmth before you get fruit.

On to plant light stands.  If you don’t already have one, you can buy them ready-to-assemble or build your own.  Some plant light stands can be pretty darned expensive, I’ve seen them for as high as $800 for the mac daddy down to around $250 for a pretty basic structure.  However, you can build your own for just a little over $100 with hardware store materials and a little handiness.  Mine is built from PVC, which unless you like the look of white plastic in your house it’s not all that pretty, but the plants have yet to complain.

If you’ve never started seeds inside, I’d encourage you to try it.  It’s pretty fun, truly amazing to watch, can be disappointing at times, but be very rewarding and well worth the money you save versus buying transplants later in the season.  At the very least you get to say, “I grew that, from seed!”

The added bonus about starting your own plants from seed, is that if you want to eat local, organic food, there’s really no better way to know exactly where your food came from than to start with an organic seed, grow it in organic soil, provide water, sunlight and feed it with healthy, chemical-free fertilizer (a.k.a compost) until the day you harvest. It doesn’t get any more local or organic than this!

If haven’t tried seed starting and you’re not sure where to start, or if you have and ran into problems please give me a holler, leave a comment or drop me a line and I’d be happy to offer what I can to help you get things growing.

Kate

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