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Warm weather tempts early planting

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By Linda Ireland

 LaRue County High School agriculture students have started working in the school’s greenhouse – preparing growing trays, checking new sprouts and assembling hanging baskets. By May, the plants, given a good head start inside the greenhouse, will be ready for sale.

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The warm weather of recent weeks has local gardeners itching to put seeds in the ground. It’s still a bit early for that but it’s the perfect time to prepare for the upcoming season and to start seeds indoors.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a website that lists the best time to start a variety of plants – http://www.almanac.com/gardening/planting-dates/KY/Hodgenville.

For instance, broccoli, cabbage, peppers and tomatoes may be started indoors as early as Feb. 21. Summer squash, pumpkins and melons can be started as early as March 21.

The magazine Mother Earth News offers these tips for early seeding at

http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/seed-starting-zm0z12fmzsto.aspx. 

• Starting seeds indoors gives you a jump on the growing season, allowing you to harvest heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers and melons earlier. Some cool-weather crops, such as broccoli, benefit from an indoor start so they have time to mature outdoors in spring or fall, before midsummer heat or winter freezes set in.

• Not every crop is a good candidate for indoor seed starting. Beans, peas and root crops should be sown directly in the garden because they don’t transplant well.

• Start with high-quality seeds and varieties suited to your region’s conditions. 

• Most beginning seed-starters jump the gun, says Rob Johnston, founder and chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. Transplants held indoors too long can become root-bound and weak – a setback that makes plants more susceptible to problems outdoors. However, starting seeds too late can mean you miss the optimum growing window. 

• Use 2-to3-inch-deep containers with drainage holes to hold the seed-starting mix. Use recycled plastic packs or yogurt cups, or buy a seed-starting tray with cell pack inserts. Some come with a plastic dome that will help preserve moisture but covering trays with a sheet of plastic wrap will also work. 

• Use a loose, well-drained mix for indoor seed starting.

• Several hours before you fill your containers with seed-starting mix, put the mix in a bucket and stir in enough water to moisten it uniformly. (This is much easier than watering the mix after you sow, and it prevents you from dislodging newly sown seeds.) Plant two or three seeds per cell at the depth recommended on the seed packet. Cover the containers with plastic wrap or a plastic dome. Remove the plastic as soon as sprouts emerge. Water seedlings gently when the soil feels dry to the touch, either with a mister or by filling the tray below the cells with water. If your starting mix didn’t contain an organic fertilizer blend, feed seedlings a diluted, liquid organic fertilizer when they form their first true leaves.

• Ideal germination temperature for most vegetable seeds is between 70 and 90 degrees – a range most homes can’t provide steadily in winter. Encourage fast sprouting by providing warmth from below your seedling flats, which is easiest to do with an electric germination mat. You could also set the container on or near another source of heat, such as a shelf placed above a radiator, near a furnace or in the same room as a woodstove.

• Seedlings need brighter light than the average home can provide in late winter. You could buy grow lights for your seedlings, but standard fluorescent lights will do just fine. Keep the lights suspended an inch or less above the tops of seedlings, raising the lights to maintain that distance as seedlings grow. Seedlings do best with 14 to 18 hours of light per day. 

• When seedlings are well established, pinch out the weakest seedlings in each cell, giving the strongest survivor room to grow. 

• After four to six weeks, the seedlings will have grown into sturdy plants ready for the outdoors. Keep the transplants in a sheltered location, such as on a porch, for about a week, bringing them in at night and gradually moving them into brighter sunlight each day.