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This week in your Massachusetts garden & landscape

Week of January 23, 2017

Seed Starting Tips 

It may be winter but you can start your spring garden now by growing your plants from seeds. Gather up all your seed starting supplies!  Check out our Locator to find a garden center near by purchase seed starting supplies.  Where to start?

  • Start at the right time. Pictured above are cold-loving pansies, which were started from seed back in December.  They are grown in a cold greenhouse, so they will be ready to plant outside in early April. Wait to sow tomatoes, though, unless you have a greenhouse or supplemental lights. They need to stay protected indoors until mid to late May, so plant warm-loving plants in late February or March.
  • The next most important thing to succeed when starting seeds indoors is to make sure your baby seedlings will have enough light.  The amount that comes from just one side (through a window) is a lot less than what comes from all sides in a greenhouse, which is even less than outdoor light. So if you find the plants starting to look a little stretchy, think about getting some grow lights.
  • What kind of light bulbs you choose to grow seedlings indoors is far less important than having an adjustable fixture, as long as they don’t emit much heat. The amount of light that reaches the plant decreases rapidly the further they are away from the source (the inverse square law for the math geeks).  So keep the lights as close to the plants as you can, and raise the lights as they grow.
  • Wait until seedlings have one set of true leaves (the ones that emerge after the first two) before transplanting them, and hold the seedlings by the leaves or soil ball when possible, so you don’t bruise the stem.
  • If your seedlings are looking long and stringy, your plants need more light, are grown too warm, or both. If this starts to happen to yours, cool them down and get them closer to the light source.
  • Umass Extension Landscape Nursery and Urban Forestry also suggests a bottom-heat mat is a good investment for starting seeds indoors. You can test left-over seeds for germination by folding inside of a damp paper towel for a few days.
  • Time to start saving eggshells. Remember to drill a small hole in the bottom for drainage. When it’s time to plant them outside, crush the bottoms to make it even easier for the roots to escape.

Hybrid (F-1): An “F-1”, or first generation hybrid occurs when a breeder selects two pure lines (plants that produce identical offspring when self-pollinated) and cross-pollinates them to produce a seed that combines desirable characteristics or “traits” from both parents. Common traits breeders work to increase in hybrids might include, for example, disease resistance, uniformity, earliness, high nutrition or color. Hybrid seed is often more expensive than non-hybrid seed, due to production methods- the pure lines must be consistently maintained so that F-1 seed can be produced each year, and the process of cross-pollinating is often done by hand. Seeds can be saved and planted from F-1 hybrids, however, plants grown from that seed “will not come true”; in other words, may lack the desirable characteristics of the parents, which were crossed specifically to incorporate them. Examples of popular home garden hybrids include Premium Crop Broccoli and Better Boy, Celebrity and Sungold Tomatoes.

Heirloom: Heirlooms can be generally defined as open-pollinated varieties that have resulted from natural selection rather than a controlled hybridization process. Some sources use 50 years as an arbitrary age marker to define what constitutes an heirloom variety. Others classify any cultivated variety as an heirloom if it was developed prior to the 1940s and 50s (starting in the 1960s, plant breeders began producing and selling many modern hybrid varieties). Like any other open- pollinated variety, seed saved from an heirloom produces plants with the same characteristics as the parent plant. Seed saving organizations have played an important role in preserving many noncommercial heirloom varieties. Examples of popular home garden heirlooms offered by many packet seed companies include Brandywine and Black Krim tomatoes and Kentucky Wonder beans. The romantic view of heirlooms is that they are varieties that have been passed down through generations of gardeners. Though this was certainly true in the past, it is often not the case in our modern world. Commercial seed producing companies now grow out seeds for many celebrated heirlooms, including, for example, Brandywine tomatoes and Lemon cucumbers, and sell them to seed packet companies to offer to home gardeners.


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