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Seed Starting Part III; Keeping Your Transplants Alive

When last we left Luke and Leia, they were hot on the trail of their frozen-in-Carbonite friend Han Solo, while desperately trying to figure out who was actually related to who in these movies; when suddenly...

Oh. Wait a minute. Wrong Part Three...

Ahem. For instructions on how to germinate your seeds and how to provide the light they need as growing plants, see Episodes One and Two at the Gardens Alive! website. We now address the Third Act of our Passion Play, which is dedicated to making sure that you avoid finishing up like that skier experiencing 'the agony of defeat' on the opening of The Wide World of Sports.

In other words: We have sprouted plants. They are under lights. Now what?

Now, grasshopper, you must become one with The Green. Or at least pay more attention than you do to most of the other things in your life. (Have you ever cleaned either side of that car's windshield? Seriously, how can you tell if it's day or night outside?)

WATERING ("wardering" in Philadelphia)

This is the trickiest part; and the same as with houseplants, weight (or the lack thereof) is your best indicator. If your containers feel heavy, back off. If they feel light, water them well, ideally by sitting them in a sink filled with a few inches of water for an hour. If this is your first dance, avoid watering from above; and never let your starts remain saturated for days at a time or they will fall prey to 'damping off' disease, which would indicate that you were a poor pilot as a helicopter parent. As the great 14th Century Master of Swordsmanship Miyamoto Musashi, explains in his classic work, The Book of Five Rings, "understand the process and train well in this perspective".

And yes, 14th Century Japanese swordsmanship and seed starting are very close to being the same thing. To quote the master, "This must be studied diligently".

FEEDING ("you jeet?" in Philadelphia)

If you have started with a clean potting mix that contains no fertilizers whatsoever, natural or synthetic, be assured that seeds begin life as plants with a large energy reserve. In fact, very little of a seed contains the genetic information that will produce a pepper, tomato, marigold or morning glory. Most of the seed contains the nutrients that will get the baby plants off the ground for the first month or so. Trust the plants.

At around week three or four after germination, begin watering with a dilute liquid organic fertilizer, worm castings or compost tea; let's say every other watering. More often for slow growing plants and less often for vigorous plants with a healthy green color and the desired short and stocky appearance. That's right, Kats and Kittens; you now have to make decisions based on your observations and instincts. As we have said in the previous episodes on this subject, relax. And if you fail, learn from that failure and do it better next year.

Plants whose potting soil contains natural nutrients like worm castings can go longer without being fed by you. Plants whose potting soil contains hazardous chemicals like Miracle-Gro or Osmocote will be cursed by the gods and do not belong in any rational being's garden.

POTTING UP (Philadelphia translation would be problematic, to say the least.)

Plants that stay relatively small, like peppers, can probably stay in their original containers, unless those containers were really small. Plants that grow big and fast like tomatoes and pumpkins will benefit from 'potting up' into larger containers around week four or five. With most plants, you should place fresh potting soil in the bottom of the new container and then fill in the sides. With tomatoes; and tomatoes ONLY; place the bottom of the root ball at the bottom of the new container and then fill in the sides. Continue to do this through any such exchanges up to and including planting. (Always plant tomatoes deeply.)

THINNING (Known as 'Solving a problem' in Philadelphia, which often requires a jaunt to the Tinicum Marsh behind the airport, where many solved problems become one with the environment.)

Earlier, you were told to place two seeds in each cell. If only one sprouted, you're good. If both seeds (or more because you didn't trust me) sprouted, you must 'thin them out' to one plant per cell. Do this around week four after germination with a small pair of scissors; don't yank anything out. Choose as the survivor the sprout with the best color and the short stocky look we're aiming for. And yes, you have to. (I don't like doing it either, but its like cleaning the toilet--wait too long and you'll regret it.)

TIMING (In Philadelphia: "What? Twenty minutes is late?")

Timing is both the essence of comedy and seed starting. The only plants I start early are ones that take a frustratingly long time to get to a decent size, like peppers and eggplant, which I have begun starting in January in my USDA Zone Six. Aggressive growers like tomatoes should not be started early as they will become too big to manage. Depending on your USDA growing Zone, most plants should be started from seed approximately eight weeks before it will be safe to transplant them outside. For me, that means a mid-March starting time for planting in mid-May and maybe early June. A little later if you live in a lower (colder winter temperatures) Zone; and earlier if you live in a warmer Zone.

(I would call you warm zoners cowards at this point, but I am officially SICK of shoveling snowstorm after snowstorm and now fantasize joining you down in the Carolinas. If I could afford San Diego, I'd be there in a New York minute.)


Your local County Extension Office, various websites, and that creepy guy down at the end of the block with fifteen junk cars under the high-tension lines next to his house will offer various opinions on your 'last average frost date'. This number is useful for seed starting, but not for planting. Do not move your babies outside until you get close to that date and the ten-day forecast predicts nights that remain reliably in the 50s.

Next Week: Making Their Beds!

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