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The Plant Doctor: Get head start on spring by planting seeds early

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Looking for an easy, yet productive winter project? Let’s think along the lines of getting a head start on our spring plants by planting seeds. Surely you jest, I’m sure you are thinking. I suggest, however, that you hold off on the phone call to the local asylum and digest the suggestions in this column that will allow even the most pessimistic to enjoy the task.

Regardless of the technique you select, you must begin with an appropriate seed-starting mix. I recommend a soil mix that consists of a lightweight soil high in perlite or vermiculite. Once the seeds have sprouted, place them about 4 inches from a standard shop light fluorescent fixture. I prefer using a two-bulb fixture. Place a cool-white bulb in one slot and a warm-white bulb in the other. The distance from a fluorescent fixture is important because good lighting will prevent the seedlings from becoming leggy.

Using 2-liter soda bottles can make a simple starting container. Cut the bottles down to 6 inches. Fill the containers with your soil mixture. Allow the seedlings to sprout while providing proper lighting and moisture. A unique property when using a plastic bottle container is that the roots cannot grow into the plastic, thus the seedling is easily transplanted.

Seedlings grow at an unbelievable rate. With direct overhead lighting, the plants will grow at a predictable rate and equally as important, expected direction.

Many of us place the seedlings on a windowsill to allow the natural light to provide the energy for plant development. Under these conditions, the seedling will automatically bend toward the source of light. A bit of discipline involving the turning of plants every two or three days will prevent the bending.

Another excellent planting container is to reuse those plastic cell-packs. Wash the packs with bleach and water mix to kill off any bacteria of fungi that may be on the container. Fill the packets with seed starting soil, water to saturation and place in a lidded, clear plastic storage box. When the seedlings develop their first leaves, remove the lid, place near suspended fluorescent lighting.

Aluminum pie pans are yet another alternative for seed development. Place seeds on a dampened paper towel on the bottom of an aluminum pie pan. Cover the pan with clear plastic. After the seeds have germinated, gently remove them and place them in small seedling pots or in individual cell packs. This technique takes the guessing out of deciding how many seeds to plant while anticipating that some will never germinate.

Seedlings often develop a fungus infection, commonly referred to as damping-off disease. A teaspoon of liquid dish soap added to a quart of chamomile tea (three to four chamomile tea bags in a quart of water) will produce a solution that can be used to treat your seedlings. It usually prevents dampening-off and is perfectly safe and environmentally friendly.

Questions or concerns about gardening or plant care? E-mail the Plant Doctor at Harvey.Goodman@att.net.

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