If you are thinking about starting a vegetable garden, or if you already plant a vegetable garden, now is a good time for backyard gardeners to begin thinking about and planning for starting some plants from seed. Some advantages to starting your own seeds is that you have a wider range of varieties available, you have more control over plant quality, and it typically costs less than buying them.
Gardeners who start seeds indoors usually begin researching varieties and placing orders during the winter months. Every year, the Cornell garden-based learning program in the Department of Horticulture (gardening.cals.cornell.edu) make the selection process a little easier for gardeners. They produce an annual publication, Selected List of Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners in New York State, which is a wonderful resource and potential time-saver for busy garden enthusiasts.
Some vegetables, like beans, corn and carrots, do better when directly seeded into the soil, while others like tomatoes and peppers need to be started before planting into the garden. Also, different seeds and plants need to be planted at different times. Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower should be started about six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Lettuce would be planted at the same time, but only needs two to three weeks to start from seed. Cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins require two to three weeks before planting in late May. Peppers and eggplants need five to eight weeks. Tomatoes are planted six to eight weeks before the last frost date. There are many websites that help to determine the last frost date for your area. For most of the Finger Lakes region, the average last frost date is between May 10 and May 20.
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To start seeds, first you need to set up a light source. A sunny window will not provide enough light for your plants to thrive. There are many types of lights you could use, but fluorescent tubes work best and are inexpensive. It is recommended that you use two double-tube fixtures. You can get special plant growth bulbs, but they are expensive and not necessary when two cool white bulbs and two warm light bulbs will work by alternating them in the fixture. The light fixtures should be attached to a table or shelf so they can be raised as the plants grow. The bulbs should be 4 to 6 inches above the foliage. The plants will need 12 to 16 hours of light per day. Consider using an automatic timer so you don't forget to turn them off or on.
There are many options for containers to start seeds. The ones you buy at garden stores are considered by many to be the most convenient. If convenience is not that important to you, use containers you have around. Containers should be at least 3 inches deep and you should have a hole in the bottom for drainage. Be sure the containers you have are clean, especially if you have used them for growing plants before. It is best to use a commercial seed starting mixture. You can mix your own with many online recipes. Do not use soil from outside, as it could spread insects or diseases to your seedlings.
Be sure to read the back of your seed package for any special seed planting instructions. Don't forget to label your containers with the name of the variety and the date you planted the seeds. Water carefully and make sure that your planting medium is kept evenly moist but not wet. The soil should be kept at a temperature above 70 degrees. You will need to begin fertilizing your plants once the first set of true leaves appears. Continue to fertilize at half strength every two to three weeks. Depending on the size of the containers you use, you may need to transplant your seedlings into larger pots. A week or so before it is time to transplant your seedling out in the garden, be sure to harden them off. Do this by increasing their exposure to the outside and sunlight slowly each day. Start by placing them outside in a place protected from the sun and wind for a couple of hours, then increase the time each day. After a few days, start to gradually expose them to more sun.
Starting seeds at home is a great way to bring your vegetable garden to the next level. Enjoy your time planning for this coming growing season. For more information about starting seeds, contact the master gardener volunteers at your Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.