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Autumn, 2014

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SEEDS: A Colorado calendar for growing tender seedlings indoors

January is the glum month of the year. The ending of the holidays coincides with winter settling in and only gardeners appear oddly upbeat and smiling. Thatís because January is the month of garden catalogues and seed ordering. Despite a blanket of snow on the ground or a brisk wind sweeping in, ripe tomatoes spring from the pagesóor, in these times--web sites. Gardeners are choosing seeds in anticipation of spring.

In all cold climates, seeds for annuals are planted indoors by dating from the last frost. For the Front Range of Colorado, May 15 signals the day. But thatís only approximate. A sudden snowstorm that freezes seedlings on May 23 will kill tender garden plants. And while gardeners bemoan the fate of their seedlings, they are not alone. A late frost will kill the fruits and berries that feed wildlife in the foothills, too, destroying food that bears and birds need to survive.

In anticipation of a sudden freeze, we spread row covers over seedlings or other protections to ease them into a chancy spring. We harden them by placing them outside the first of May when the temperatures rise by mid-day. We bring them in by late afternoon. We let the wind ruffle them a bit so the stalk thickens. By the end of May, our young plants are ready to be tucked into a garden.

Itís an end to one stage; it's also a beginning to the next.

The Ritual of Indoor Planting

By the time tender plants are placed in garden soil, weíve already lavished time and attention. Tomatoes, cantaloupe, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, herbs, pumpkins, celery and artichokes can be started indoors from seed.

Yes, artichokes. "You can get a good harvest of artichokes if you start the seeds in January," says Ken Vetting, the owner of The Rocky Mountain Seed Co. in Denver. Vetting not only has grown artichokes, but also Belgian endive, Pascal celery and leeks.

Since 1920, The Rocky Mountain Seed Company has inhabited the unlikely location of 15th Street in the LoDo section of Denver. Itís a vestige from earlier days when six seed stores were located nearby. "Weíre one of the few stores of this kind left," Ken says. Like his store, he has witnessed the decades of dwindling vegetable farming in the metro area. Walls of tiny cabinets of highly polished wood store packets of seeds. Rakes and hoes line up for serious viewing. Customers come in for a few seed packets and lots of advice.

Seek his advice about a crop and heíll ask you where you live. "Colorado is full of small microclimates. People will try to grow tomatoes in Evergreen. Itís just too cold. I tell them to stay with lettuce and peas. Peas, now thereís a crop you donít see much in the supermarkets anymore. Thereís a lot of labor in a crop of fresh peas, but to me there nothing that tastes better than peas out of the garden." 

He'll tell you to dig a trench about four inches down on St. Patrickís Day, the traditional day to plant peas. As the seedlings emerge, fill in the trench just up to the leaves. "That way, when the summer heats up, the roots wonít dry out," he says. Well, there are tricks to every crop, but no one can change the unique environment where he lives.

If you live along the Green River in Utah, you can grow cantaloupes and watermelons. They require warmer nights than gardens the foothills offer. The sugars wonít mature in the melons grown along the foothills, Ken says, although just to the east, they often will. Melons from Rocky Ford are famous--proof that much of gardening in Colorado depends upon elevation.

It Begins with Seeds

But first it begins with seeds. Seeds are relatively cheap for the home gardener, which makes them worthwhile right away. But thereís another boon as well. Seeds provide the widest assortment of plants, both hybrid and heirloom. And thereís often a far greater variety to choose from when it comes to seed packets. Without seeds, you may have only a few varieties of greenhouse-grown vegetable seedlings to choose from.

Starting from seed means you have to plan in late winter. Ken begins many of his seeds indoors by the first of March. Artichokes in January are one exception. He believes that home gardeners often start their seeds too early. They end up with leggy seedlings that are unsuited for the grueling weather conditions outside. "If they had waited a little later they would have smaller plants to set out," he says, "the ideal time for eggplants is the first of March. I plant peppers the 20th of March and tomatoes the first of April."

Hereís a general guideline for planting seeds indoors:

  • January 15: artichokes
  • February 20: lettuce, to be set out by the first of April
  • March 1: eggplant, celery, leeks, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and many perennial flowers
  • March 20: peppers
  • April 1: tomatoes
  • April 10: Basil and many annual flowers. Melons, pumpkins, squash (these do not like to be handled, so many indoor seed growers simply will not transplant them and prefer to direct seed in the garden).

To grow seeds indoors requires a few tried-and-true techniques. Use containers that are clean. Old containers should be washed in a weak bleach mixture and rinsed well. And begin with sterile seed-starting mix that has been designed only for seeds. Potting soils usually are too heavy for seedlings. Fill your containers with seed-starting mix and water thoroughly.

Once They Germinate

Suppose you have saved seeds over the years and are unsure if they will germinate. Here is a simple test. Wet the seeds and place them in a damp paper towel. Place the towel in a plastic bag. Each variety of seed will germinate according to package directions, usually within seven to ten days. Perhaps only a third of old seeds will germinate. If thatís the case, you only need to plant those viable seedlings.

Tomatoes, parsley, coriander and fennel need darkness to germinate. Lettuce, savory, dill and celery need light. And some seeds benefit from wetting them, using the paper towel method before planting: sunflowers, beet, spinach, parsley, okra, New Zealand spinach, peas.

Once planted, set the tray by a window until the green shoots begin to emerge. Keep them misted with water from a spray bottle. Only when the shoots emerge do they need to go under lights. Although it's possible to set seedlings in a southeastern window, thereís rarely enough light for them to grow well. Most gardeners set up two fluorescent lights, a cool white and warm white, set about three inches above the plants for 14 to 16 hours a day. Long hours of light are important, but a period of darkness is necessary, too. Most gardeners rely on timers. Temperatures may range from 50 degrees for cool weather plants like beets and lettuce, to 80 degrees for eggplant and melons.

Once seedlings show their true leaves, those first leaves that indicate you have a tomato plant rather than a generic small leaf, itís time to fertilize. Rather than using a dose at full strength, try ľ the dose recommended on the package for a weak solution for each watering. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Discard any water that pools into the tray.

Ken likes to place about three seeds in each tiny pot. When they begin to grow, heíll snip the two smaller plants with scissors. That way, the fragile roots on the hardiest seedling are not damaged. "I let them compete for size," he says, "let them get to be two or three inches in height." If they are outgrowing tiny pots, transplant them to larger pots with the greatest of care. Paper cups may be used by this time providing youíve jabbed holes in the bottom for drainage.

Preparing Plants for the Outdoors

A couple of weeks before you plan to set out plants, perhaps by May 1, harden them off. Place seedlings outside beginning with just an hour or two and gradually lengthen that time until they are out for much of the day, but brought in before night. Make sure the seedlings donít dry out.

Some gardeners cover their garden with black plastic to warm the soil in preparation for May 15. Certainly row covers, a manufactured fabric stretched over wire arches, are a common practice to shield the tiny plants from fierce winds and sudden temperature drops. 

There's also a water-filled moat that can protect tender plants, usually tomato seedlings. Ken sits a 50-gallon water jug on the ground, surrounds it with a Walls-o-Water, and then fills the empty pockets. These pockets, when filled with water may insulate the plant, and the form of the water jug will provide a sturdy center. Then plant your seedlings. Frequently, these walls tip over, flooding and crushing the plantlet. Kenís technique prevents that.

Stay mindful of temperature changes the first two weeks that youíve set your plants out. Prepare to cover them at night with old blankets, newspapers weighted on the edges with rocks, whatever is available if you anticipate a freeze.

Vegetable gardening may appear daunting in our climate. Despite our travails, Ken says small farms once thrived along the foothills, "Why, at one time we had 6,000 truck farmers from Aurora to Littleton."

Helpful websites:

www.botanicalinterests.com A seed company in Broomfield with a wide selection for the home gardener.

www.cooksgarden.com In Vermont, Cook's Garden carries heirloom and organic seeds. They specialize in European salad greens.

www.johnnyseeds.com from Maine carries a large array of seeds, many suitable for cold climates

www.shepherdseeds.com from Connecticut carries a good selection

www.vermontbean.com excellent selection of bean seeds, good for cold climates

www.burpee.com an old standby

www.totallytomato.com vast array of tomatoes

www.underwoodgardens.com an Illinois company specializing in heirlooms

www.irish-eyes.com seed potatoes from Washington

www.fedcoseeds.com strictly organic seeds, they don't sell seeds online but you can order a catalogue

www.rareseeds.com in Missouri, heirlooms 

www.abundantlifeseed.org, rarities and heirlooms


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