It’s not easy being green in Central and Western Maine. After months of being buried under several feet of snow, seeds aren’t ready to start sprouting anytime soon. But home gardeners can give nature a boost and get ahead of the state’s short growing season by starting seedlings indoors.
Rocky Crockett, Norway’s Alan Day Community Garden coordinator, and Kim Finnerty, Auburn’s newly-hired Whiting Farm Program coordinator, have already begun some seedlings for their home gardens, but Finnerty said Monday that those who haven’t started yet aren’t too far behind.
“Onions you usually start the earliest, then eggplants and tomatoes and peppers,” Crockett said last week from his South Paris home, adding the community garden offers plots for people who can’t grow at their own home or rental. “Both kids and gardeners who start signing up for plots, they don’t start thinking about it before it’s time to plant. The whole point is we have such a short growing season in Maine you need to start seedlings to have them grow.”
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension article “Starting Seeds at Home,” by Marjorie Peronto and Theresa Guethler, says that growing seedlings and then transplanting them outside is important for plants that take longer to mature or are sensitive to frost, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons. It echoed Crockett’s sentiments about the state’s short growing season.
“You can start enjoying flowers and harvesting vegetables four to six weeks earlier than if you had waited for the ground to warm up enough for you to sow the seeds outside,” it reads.
Finnerty said she started her tomatoes, eggplants and peppers within the last week. Sherie Blumenthal, food access coordinator at St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston, which runs the Lots to Gardens program, said she planted onions and leeks seeds a couple of weeks ago. Finnerty plans on starting her onions and leeks soon. The smaller seeds are the ones that gardeners should start first — tomatoes and peppers — which are followed by larger seeds for cucumbers, pumpkins and squashes, according to Finnerty. The age of the seeds is important as well, Blumenthal said, with appropriate seed ages available online.
Finnerty and Blumenthal agreed there’s lots of useful information on seed packets, including germination times.
“Really pay attention to the instructions on your seed packet and know the climate zones in Maine,” Blumenthal advised. “Nothing is more frustrating than starting a tomato plant and transplanting (it) and it’s root bound.”
The professionals agree that there are several different ways to start seedlings. (See the chart with this story for when to start seedlings and time frames for seeding to germination and germination to transplanting. Crockett and the Cooperative Extension article say carrots, beans, beets. corn, peas, turnips, zucchini and spinach should be direct-seeded in the garden.) According to the Cooperative Extension article, seeds can be planted in any clean container measuring 2- to 3.5-inches deep that has adequate drainage holes. Containers can be plastic, compressed peat or wood or recycled containers. Finnerty said egg cartons, newspapers and her personal favorite, toilet paper rolls, can be used to grow seedlings in. For the toilet paper rolls, she advises to cut it in half, slice up about a half inch from the bottom then fold it as if to close a cardboard box.
“Then you can just plant it in the ground because it biodegrates,” Finnerty said.
After the seeds are planted, they should be labeled.
“Labeling is super important with seedlings because you can really get confused,” Blumenthal said.
Moisture and lighting are extremely important for seedlings. Blumenthal also advised that the soil — which the Cooperative Extension article said should actually be a fine-textured soilless mix without any fertilizer and can contain equal parts of peat moss and vermicultile or perlite — should be kept evenly moist. Overwatering is a common mistake by beginning gardeners, which can cause rot and ruin the plant before it even had a chance to grow. To avoid this, get a sponge wet and wring it out, Blumenthal said.
To germinate, the seeds need warmer temperatures, Crockett said, and can be placed near a wood or pellet stove or on top of a refrigerator. The Cooperative Extension article said the seeds should be covered with clear plastic and kept out of direct sunlight during this time since the soil could become too hot and kill the seeds. Finnerty said once planted, seeds can be placed in a Ziplock bag, which will keep them moist and show signs of photosynthesis.
“The bag will get kind of puffy because the plant is taking in carbon dioxide and producing oxygen,” she said.
Crockett advises that once the seedling sprouts, they should have at least 14 hours of sunlight a day. The plastic covering or Ziplock bags should be removed at this time. For his home garden, he uses a reflective tent usually utilized by marijuana growers and a high intensity discharge bulb. For those who don’t want to invest in such equipment, a sunny window that isn’t too drafty will work, with a little more help.
“The seedlings will get leggy and reach for the sun,” Blumenthal said about if they’re simply placed on sunny windowsills. “Fluorescent light behind it on the other side will balance it out.”
For those who don’t have a sunny window or porch or growing tent, they can use a gallon milk jug. Blumenthal said to cut the jug in half and make it look like it’s talking, which will create a miniature greenhouse. If it gets too warm during the day, open up the top or take the top off. According to the article, germination temperatures should be between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit and growing temperatures range from 55 to 65 degrees.
Once the second set of true leaves grow, the seedlings should be watered with a half-strength fertilizer, according to the Cooperative Extension article. Blumenthal likes to use seaweed and fish emulsion, which can be found at almost any gardening store. Then seedlings should be thinned to one inch apart and transplanted into individual pots.
“When you’re transplanting seedlings, you don’t ever want to handle it by the stem too harshly. If you damage the stem, you damage the body of the seedling,” Blumenthal said. “Some people take for granted the impact their seedlings will have on the plant later on. The health and strength of your seedlings will impact what kind of fruit it will bear.”
St. Mary’s Nutrition Center will host a program on starting seedlings from 6 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14, at the nutrition center, 208 Bates St. in Lewiston. To sign up, visit www.stmarysnutritioncenter.org.
For more information on growing seedlings and gardening, visit www.extension.umaine.edu/gardening/ or www.mofga.org/AgriculturalServices/tabid/130/Default.aspx.