Start Seeds and Plants with Grow Lights

Would you like to start some of your own vegetable and flower plants from seed? I have struggled for several years to start plants in front of a sliding glass door. It is west facing so I get only about 4 hours of strong light a day. I would be more successful with a south facing window. Even then, our cloudy winter and early spring weather just does not produce light bright enough to grow quality plants.

I received a grow light kit as a Christmas present from my wife who is a master gardener. It has an adjustable stand with a fluorescent grow light. I also received a kit containing a tray with individual plant cells, some seed starting soil mix, a heating mat and a plastic dome. Small grow light stands like mine are available starting at about $40. This is a good place to begin if you only want to start a few plants. High intensity light using LED, MH (metal halide) or HPS (high pressure sodium) lights produce higher light intensities and use less electricity but are also more expensive. Search “plant grow lights” on line for more information.

Plant grow lights can be left on for up to 23 hours per day to increase the amount of light received. I would suggest using a timer to turn them on and off.

Many kinds of containers are available. I like the ones which contain individual cells or cubes for each plant. Peat pots and Jiffy peat pellets are handy because roots grow into the pot and you plant the container with the plant.

Almost any potting soil mix can be used, but mixes specifically made for seed starting are the best. They drain quickly but also hold a lot of moisture. It is important to avoid standing water in a tray. The water is reabsorbed and keeps the soil too wet. Soil which is saturated with moisture does not have the air (oxygen) needed for plant root growth. The top of the soil needs to be kept moist until seeds germinate.

You can plant 2 or 3 seeds in each cell or pot and remove the extra plants or you can plant a number of seeds in a tray or larger pot and then transplant them to individual cells.

Sometimes plastic domes or tents are used to keep a high humidity around plants during the germinating process. They should be removed when plants have a few leaves.

Ideal soil temperature for starting most seeds is 70 to 75 degrees. Most heating mats have thermostats to keep them at this ideal temperature for best seed germination.

Plants need to be “hardened off” to get them used to drier outside air for a few days before planting outside. I often place plants outside during the daytime when temperatures reach 50 degrees. Then bring them back in at night. This cool day/warm night schedule actually makes plants grow more compactly.

Winter Pruning

Winter is an excellent time to prune most plants. Deciduous plants do not have leaves so it is easier to see where to prune. Every January my newsletter contains information on pruning fruit trees. This is because fruit trees should be pruned every year for best fruit production. Otherwise even “semi-dwarf” trees grow too large for easy picking. Without pruning, lower branches get shaded and soon quit bearing fruit. If all you do is remove all the water sprout branches which grow straight up you have accomplished 70 per cent of needed pruning. The other main task is to remove branches which cross or grow into each other. Then take out all the branches which grow inward toward the center of the tree Fruit trees should have only about half as many branches as shade trees so adequate light reaches the fruiting branches. Large branches which are too high for picking can be pruned back just above a side branch. You have until early to mid March to get this job done. Otherwise call me or someone else skilled in pruning fruit trees.

New All-America Award Winning Flowers

4 New Flowers have won coveted All-America Selections Awards for 2011. The Gaillardia and Salvia are best planted in the Spring. The Viola and Ornamental Kale are best planted in the late summer for winter color. Seeds are available now. Plants will available in the spring and summer.

Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’ has apricot colored flowers, which is a distinct new color for Gaillardias or Blanket Flowers. The 3 inch daisy flowers are deep apricot in the center fading to lemon yellow on the edges. Most perennial flowers do not bloom the first year from seed, but Arizona Apricot blooms the first year and has a long blooming season. Plants are compact and grow about 12 inches high. It is relatively maintenance free and drought tolerant once established. If old flowers are removed it will encourage repeat blooming. It is best planted near the front of a border or bed. Several plants spaced a foot apart will grow into a mass planting.

Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’ was rated superior because of its early bloom and large number of spike flowers. Plants bloom continuously from planting time until fall frost. Plants grow about 18 to 20 inches tall at maturity. Red flower spikes are a magnet for humming birds. Birds love the seeds which mature summer to fall. Salvia grows well in areas too shady for other annuals, but also does well in the sun.

Viola Shangri-La Marina is an early-flowering, mounding viola with a vibrant new color. 1½ inch flowers have light blue petals with a velvety dark blue face and a narrow white outer edge. This hybrid variety produces more flowers than typical violas. There is no need to remove dead flowers because the 6 inch plants are self-cleaning. Violas and pansies are two of the best adapted flowers for fall, winter and early spring color. They can be planted in sunny or shady areas of the garden.

Ornamental Kale ‘Glamour Red’ is another flower well-adapted to fall planting. It requires night temperatures in the low 50’s for the red color to develop. It is the first Kale to ever win an All-America award. ‘Glamour Red’ has fringed leaf edges with a unique shine that makes them stand out in beds and borders. Flower heads grow 10 to 12 inches across and about the same height.