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I want to help a group of very young children grow things from seed. I'm not much of a gardener myself, so I'd be learning along with the kids. Can you tell me where to start? - J.P. -
Even the oldest hand at seed starting can learn a lot by teaching others. Since it's that time of year when many fingers are itching to plant a seed, we'll all learn along with you.
There are many ways to grow, but in working with our own kids and elementary school classes as Master Gardener volunteers, we've stuck with sure-fire methods. We hope every child grows up to be a gardener and we know that early successes go a long way in that direction. Yet even one failure for a five year old can create a "black thumb" self image that may last right into adulthood.
Use large seeds which are easy to handle, not so easily broken and almost impossible to bury too deeply. Beans and peas are great. Buy gardening seeds, not dried beans or peas sold at grocers which may have been treated with growth inhibitors to prevent sprouting. You can buy large packages with hundreds of seeds for just a few dollars or several kinds in smaller packages to teach diversity as well as gardening.
Every package has some seeds that can't grow, perhaps because they didn't ripen properly or were damaged in packaging. So pre-sprout seeds to identify winners: Soak them in water overnight in a glass jar, then pour off the water. Stretch a scrap of cheesecloth or nylon stocking over the mouth of the jar and clamp it with a rubber band. Put a quarter-inch of water into a shallow dish then invert the jar on the dish. Prop up one edge of the jar's mouth so just an edge of the cloth covering, not the seeds, touches the water and air can circulate around the seeds.
Keep the jar warm. Light is not necessary. Once a day, fill the jar with lukewarm water and empty it to rinse the seeds. The seeds will sprout in just a few days. Plant them as soon as you see this happen.
The seeds need to be tucked into a medium that supplies air, moisture and anchorage. Garden soil, even from the best garden, can't deliver on all three when it's in a pot so never use it for seed starting. Buy soilless potting mix from a garden center. That's a lightweight mix of peat, bark and vermiculite or perlite.
In a bucket, wet what you need by mixing one part water with two parts soilless mix. Pat the mix gently into containers, which can be anything with drainage holes. Bathroom size paper drinking cups work well. Before you fill it, use a pencil to punch a few holes in the bottom of each cup.
Fill containers to the brim. If the potting mix is below the rim, air will not move freely across that surface and fungi proliferates there. Fungus can kill a seedling as it sprouts, infecting the stem and pinching it off at the soil line. It's called "damping off."
Plant one or more seeds in each cup. With few exceptions, seed should be covered with a layer of soilless mix about as thick as the seed itself.
Put the cups into a seed flat with a clear plastic bubble top. These cost under $10 at a garden center and last for years. Or put each cup into its own clear jar and close the lid. Now you have a terrarium which will not need water as long as there is condensation inside.
Put the terrarium in good light. Window light isn't good enough! What is good is a plain old fluorescent bulb 3 or 4 inches above the terrarium.
In a few days the plants will rise through the soil surface. Take the jar lid or bubble top off when the plant touches it.
Water carefully so pots never sit in water. If you planted into paper cups, transplant the entire cup into a bigger pot or out into a garden when the time comes.
There's more about seed starting in books such as Nancy Bubel's The New Seed-Starter's Handbook (Rodale Press). Or when you order seeds by mail, you may also receive basic instructions.
...and gardening questions start to pile up. Check the Forum! We're there for you between weekend columns and have already posted close to 1,000 answers.
to having the hose ready to rinse roadside, salt-sprayed trees and shrubs during a thaw. Those two or three day periods of above-40 weather are common in the last week of February. Wash salt off soon or it will kill new growth as the sap rises and pops loose the protective caps that have covered the growing tips all winter.
to expecting anti-desiccants such as Wilt-Pruf to last all winter. That protective coating breaks down in sunlight over time and the plants are often unprotected at the worst time, during temperature oscillations in late winter. Reapply anti-desiccants now on a day above 40 degrees to at-risk broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons.
Originally published 2/21/04