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Starting plants from seeds or cuttings – Great tips from a Master Gardener!

Spring is finally here (on the calendar anyway) and Fox Island Master Gardener Linda Dodds has some great advice for starting plants out for the Annual Fox Island Plant Sale. Plant some for yourself and bring the extra to sell at the sale. This wonderful annual event, on May 5th this year,  helps raise funds for FICRA and the Nature Center!

From Linda Dodds: 

The upcoming Fox Island Plant Sale could be THE PLACE to buy your bedding plants this year. Many of you may want to start plants to donate to the sale but don’t have a clue how to start seeds or take cuttings.

First of all, purchase seed starting soil. It is much finer than regular soil and that makes it much easier to the tiny roots to spread of and grow. I usually mix mine with some regular potting soil since I do so many starts every year. Second, you should purchase seeds that are easier to transplant later on. Corn can be tricky so unless you feel that you can plant them in containers that the roots won’t be disturbed when transplanting, let more expert gardeners start them for you. Lettuce is easy to start and so are squash, cucumbers and spinach. Other easy ones to start are cosmos, nasturtiums and most herbs.

The ideal place to sow the seeds are in flats that can be covered with a clear plastic top. I find that I can get several different varieties of seeds sown into one 9×11 or 12×15 flat that has small drain holes in the bottom. Mix the potting and seed starting soils together and fill the flat almost to the top with soil. Level it off and water carefully. The soil is so fine that the water seems to sit on top for a while so once water is absorbed, gently re-water again until soil is well moistened. I use small bamboo sticks to mark off the sections by gently pressing them into the soil. If you are using fine seeds, sprinkle them over the section and then cover them with the depth of soil stated on the package. pat the soil down firmly so the soil makes good contact with the seed. Mark the section with a Popsicle stick indicating what the plant will be and move on to the next section and repeating the process. Some seeds such as pumpkin or squash need to be pressed into the soil a bit and then covered with more soil. Space these well or you could end up with a tangled mess of roots. Once your tray is filled, give it a good sprinkle, cover it with a plastic dome and move it close to a heat source. The top of a refrigerator works well as it stays warm and best of all places is next to the furnace. The seeds don’t need light to germinate, but they do need heat. Check after a few days to be sure the soil is staying moist and use a spray bottle to give them more water if needed. Once they seedlings start sprouting, check them every day to be sure they don’t grow up and touch the plastic dome. Once they have, then remove the cover and place them in a sunny spot or move them to a greenhouse. It really helps to run your hand gently over the tops of the sprouts to make them grow stronger stems. Or a fan blowing air around also helps them as they have to fight to stay upright and grow strong. Once the sprouts have 4 leaves, (the first two don’t count, the second two are called true leaves) you can transplant them into 3 or 4 inch pots. If roots start growing out the bottom of the pots, they will need to be either transferred to even larger pots or put in the ground. However, not all seedlings can go out into the garden before mid may or June. Beans, tomatoes and corn are heat loving plants and can easily be killed by too cool weather. Spinach, lettuce, peas and beats can go in much earlier…like now for instance. And it can be way too much of a shock for plants that have been growing in protected warm areas to be suddenly stuck out in your garden. They need to be ‘hardened off’ first. On a sunny day, move the plants outside for an hour and then return to their warmer home. Each day, extend their time outside by an hour and eventually they will be able to handle the big outdoors.

Getting starts from growing plants can be easy in certain instances. Many plants spread and grow by new shoots sprouting up from the ground. Many hardy fuchsias will have all kinds of growth coming up around the main stem in the spring. Those can be easily dug up and replanted in the garden or put in pots to bring to the plant sale. Plants that grow by rhizomes or bulbs are easily dug up. Look for low growing branches on Rhody’s and fig trees to see if any of the lower branches may be covered by soil and rooted. Gently clip off the cutting, being sure to get as many of the sprouting roots as possible and move to another location or pot up to share too. Soon you will be experimenting grafting and taking cuttings from your neighbors plants……just be sure to ask them first.