Saturday, April 12, 2014

How I Start My Own Bedding Plants--a sort of tutorial

I get this question all the time. I get to talking with people about gardening and, inevitably, they ask me where I get my bedding plants. Sometimes the look of shock on their faces is priceless.  The conversation usually goes something like this:

"So, where do you buy your bedding plants?"

"I grow my own."

"You grow your own?  You can do that?"

"Of course I can do that.  Anyone can do that."

"I could never do that. I don't have that green of a thumb."

To that I say, "Utter nonsense."  Starting your own bedding plants requires absolutely no special equipment.  All you need is something to use for little pots, something that those little pots can sit in, some potting soil, a spot in a sunny window, some water and some seeds.

These are the first pepper plants I ever started from seed.

Here's how I do it:

Before starting, be sure to check to see when the seeds need to be started.  Many bedding plants are started six to eight weeks prior to planting outside.  For me, here in Nebraska zone 5, six weeks prior to last average frost is about mid-March.  I usually start my tomatoes then.  Plan ahead and make sure to start the seeds at the right time.

Step One:  Find something to use for a pot.  I like to make my own little pots from newspaper with a gadget I bought on Etsy awhile back:

Again, this is their picture.  Not mine.
But the same thing can be accomplished without the fancy gadget.  A small drinking glass or jar or wine bottle will work.  I make the paper pots and then fill them with seed starting mix or potting soil. Recycled yogurt containers or pudding containers make good pots if some little drainage holes are drilled in the bottom.  I've also used those little expanding peat moss pellets that can be found at the garden center.  They're fun to watch as they swell up while they soak up the water but I don't think they work any better than the paper pots. It says on the package that the pellets can be planted covering and all.  However, I usually remove the film on the outside of the pellet before planting.  I've found them totally intact in my garden years after planting.

Step Two:  Put the pots in a plastic tray or other water-proof container.  The clam shell containers that cakes and such come in from the bakery work really well for this.  My containers are similar clear plastic clam shell type storage containers I got from my Mom.  I am not sure where she got them.  Probably on the home shopping network.

The paper pots with the soil most of them.
Step Three:  Add seeds and cover them with soil to the proper depth.  Planting depth information will be found on the seed package.  I usually put two or three seeds per pot.  Once they have sprouted, it's easy to choose the strongest seedling in each pot and simply cut off any others that emerge later...or not.  I tend to leave them all to grow.  I can be too soft hearted sometimes.

Marigolds are very easy to grow from seed and they are pretty forgiving and so make an excellent choice for a first attempt.  Be sure to label the pots with their contents.  Seedlings look remarkably similar until they get a few sets of true leaves.

I make my own labels, too.  These are made from an old mini-blind that I tore apart and cut up the slats.  A black Sharpie marker works pretty good for labeling.  Any other color tends to fade quickly in the sunlight. The best bet when using markers is to place the labels so the writing is not in the sun.  I've also made labels to stick on with a P-Touch label maker.  These little mini-blind labels are very durable.  The marker can be cleaned off with a bit of rubbing alcohol allowing re-use for several years.  They absolutely do not break down in the sunlight or in the soil.  I've dug them up a couple years later, washed them off and re-used them.

Step Four:  Water the little pots with your red watering can.

If you don't have a red watering can, I suppose an empty milk jug will do.  But this project will definitely go better with the proper tools.

Step Five:  Cover the little pots.  This is why I suggested the clam shell container from the bakery.  For best results, use a container that can be closed up to help hold the moisture in for the seeds.  Alternatively, just about any type of tray can be covered with plastic wrap or, if it's small enough, the whole thing could be placed inside a clear plastic bag.

Step Six: Wait for the seeds to sprout.  Now this is probably the only tricky part.  Some seeds require a specific temperature range for germination.  Other seeds need a pretreatment in cold or 'scarification' which means to cut or nick the seed coat prior to planting.  Some seeds will germinate faster if  they are soaked overnight in warm water.  Most seeds just won't grow if the temperature is too cold or not consistently warm enough.  Fancy seed starting heat mats can be used.  I usually just set them in the window on a shelf and wait for them to decide it's time to grow.  Keep them moist, but not drowning.  Some seeds require light to germinate but most don't need light until they emerge from the soil.

Step Seven:  After tiny little sprouts appear in the pots, open up whatever covering is over the pots.  The little bitty plants will need to have access to fresh air for gas exchange.  At this point, the seedlings are subject to a condition known as 'damping off' which can kill the plants before they really have a chance to grow.  Make sure they have adequate fresh air.  I prop the lid of my clam shell up with a clothespin.

Move the plants to a sunny location.  Grow lights will help; but, they aren't required for success.  I've done this with just a sunny window and some TLC.  Give the young plants as much light as possible.  Turn the pots every day or so to keep the plants growing up straight as they will tend to lean towards the light.

Step Eight:  Getting ready to plant the seedlings in the garden takes some time and patience.  Remember that these little plants have been growing in a very stable and comfortable setting. They need to be 'hardened off.'  What that means is that the plants must be gradually introduced to the outside world a little at a time. Put the plants out in a protected area for a couple hours a day and gradually extend the time they are outside over a couple weeks' time.

Step Nine:  Planting out the seedlings.  Hooray!  The plants are ready to go out on their own.  Putting these plants out in the garden is best done on a cloudy day if possible.  Marigolds can be planted out just like any other annual flower from the nursery.  Vegetable plants will benefit from a little extra protection while they get established in the garden  Cut off the bottom of a translucent gallon milk jug and put it over the freshly planted tomato or pepper plant.

Here is how I used some milk jugs.  Two-liter soda bottles work, too.
 The jug will protect the plant from the sun's harshness and give them time to grow into their new home.  When the plants start to outgrow their covering, take the jug off on a cloudy day.  I have another method that I use with my tomato plants that I find works really, really well.  

But that's another blog.  The milk jug will work just fine.

TA DA!  Home grown bedding plants.  It seems like a lot of work.  But, I like to do it because, in the long run, it's less expensive than buying bedding plants and I can get a lot more varieties of plants than are usually offered at the garden center or nursery.   Also, since the plants are started 6 to 8 weeks prior to planting out, I get to start gardening lots sooner in the year. And now so can you.  Let me know how your plants grow!

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