Barany in the Garden: Tips on starting seeds from a Yakima Valley expert | Home And Garden

Joe Gabriel is the best vegetable gardener I know. Maybe it’s his homegrown seedlings. For 50 years, he’s started thousands of seeds with spectacular results, and a few spectacular failures. An area 2 feet by 4 feet on a basement workbench is all the space he has to start hundreds of seeds each year.

Many of us are itching to start some seeds. With Joe’s range of experience, there was no one better to ask for some wise advice to get us started.

LIGHT: Seeds need 16 hours of light each day, and the sun’s winter arc won’t provide enough. Seeds may germinate on your window sill, but will grow weak and leggy, even if you turn the plants daily. Many gardeners supply supplementary light with ordinary LED or fluorescent shop light tubes. Joe feels that the grow light tubes he prefers are worth the extra cost because they offer full-spectrum light. Hang the lights you choose 2-3 inches above the soil surface and raise them as the plants grow.

Most seeds benefit from bottom heat for germination, and Joe starts his on heat mats.

He doesn’t use domes, the transparent covers placed over seed beds to increase humidity. They’re included in standard seed-starting kits and many find them helpful. Be sure to remove the domes after the seeds sprout. New plants require better air circulation.

SEED SOWING: In a 4-inch pot, Joe plants three rows of seeds. For example, a row might be a single variety of tomato, pepper, or eggplant. He’ll plant three to four seeds/row for a total of 9-12 seeds/ pot. Each row is carefully labeled with the variety name.

TIMING: Joe starts seeds for frost tolerant crops like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, and cilantro on Feb. 15. He may seed these again in late June for fall harvest. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are started the first week of March, followed by tomatoes March 15.

When seedlings develop two sets of true leaves, they’re bumped up into individual 3-to-4-inch square pots.

His frost tolerant seedlings are planted outside March 1 under his homemade cloche/row cover. If you don’t have frost protection, he advises backing up sowing and transplanting dates for cold crops about three weeks.

Warm season varieties grow on in his small unheated greenhouse until May 12, the “Average Last Frost Date” for his 98902 growing area.

Started too early, seedlings can become overgrown before it’s time to transplant them outdoors. Started too late, they won’t have enough time to produce a crop. Unless you have row covers, a cold frame, or greenhouse; continue growing your seedlings under artificial light until it’s safe to plant them outside.

Not all plants are cut out for transplanting. For example, radishes, carrots, and beets grow best seeded directly into garden soil.

I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t need a whole seed packet worth of zucchini plants. Joe plants only what he needs, plus a few more seeds for insurance. He also succession-seeds some crops, like salad greens, at 7-21 day intervals to maintain a steady supply. Extra seeds are stored in a ziplock bag in the freezer.

SOIL: Seeds need a lightweight, nutrient-filled planting mix that drains well and allows roots to expand quickly. Called potting soil, they are usually soil-less mixes containing a combination of peat, perlite, vermiculite, coir and compost. Some seeds, especially those that are small, may do better in an especially porous and fine-grained seed-starting mix. Never use topsoil or garden soil.

WATER: As soon as a seed is planted and begins absorbing water, the soil should never dry out or become saturated. Seed starting for Joe is not a “set it and forget it” endeavor. He consistently monitors the needs of his growing seeds. If he’s leaving town, even for a few days, he finds a seedling babysitter.

Bottom watering is preferred. Joe’s seedling pots sit in Dollar Tree aluminum pans. Adding water to the pans allows the seedlings to wick up water through the drainage holes in their pots. Standard seed starting kits contain a tray that serves as a liner for bottom watering.

FERTILIZER: Since seedlings are growing in a soilless mix that may not contain fertilizer, they’ll need supplemental feeding when their true leaves develop. Use a half-strength water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks, or add a slow-release granular fertilizer at the time you transplant into individual pots.

HARDENING OFF: Planted directly into the soil without ever being outdoors before, most seedlings won’t survive. Two weeks before planting day, begin setting them out for a few hours daily so they can adjust to fluctuating temperatures, light intensity and winds. If you can, plant them into the garden on a cool and cloudy day to minimize transplant shock. Keep them well watered for the next two weeks while they establish a strong root system.

The internet offers hundreds of hours of “How to Start Seeds Indoors” tutorials. I think I read or watched them all before I talked to Joe. These two are among the best: for their Seed Starting 101 Mini-Course.

• Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 1 1/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Contact her at [email protected].

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