You know you’re a garden geek when… all it takes to excite you is sprouting seeds! Yes, that’s definitely me! When I see seeds sprouting, I’m like a proud new mom. There’s so much potential – so much possibility that it makes me giddy!
I’m always on the look out for seedlings that get stuck in their shell. I think I’ve mastered the delicate process of rescuing seedlings that, for whatever reason, didn’t leave the husk in the dirt. I can even gently separate two seedlings that have entangled roots without breaking their fragile stem.
But just like everything, the newness can wear off rather quickly when a week or so later, I discover my plants leaning over and looking rather unhappy.
Seedlings are very fragile and it doesn’t take much to turn a vibrant little plant into a withered mess. Recently, one of my friends thought her sunflower sprouts (pictured above) were dying because they could no longer stand on their own. She thought she’d done something wrong when actually it was simply time for them to move on to the next phase. Unfortunately, it was still too cold for them to be transplanted outside and she was unable to keep them going indoors.
It is possible to keep seedlings happy until it’s warm enough to plant outdoors, but they require a few strategic moves. They require a little bit more effort on your part, but these simple tricks could keep your plant babies alive and give you a great head start on harvest time.
Here’s what I’ve done to keep my seedlings thriving during the wait:
Provide the basic necessities for seedlings
Before a seed can sprout, it needs moisture and warmth. It uses the nutrients from inside the seed to fuel the growth process, but once it sprouts, it uses up those stores quickly needs sunlight to continue growing. If it’s too cold outside, taking it out for sunlight is not an option. You could sit the plant by a window, but the short amount of time that the sun will actually shine through the window won’t be enough.
Try a 40 watt light bulb
You’ll need to provide supplemental light and you can do that by placing them under a 40 watt light bulb. It needs to be at least 40 watt to give off enough energy, and needs to be no more than about 12 inches away.
I use a clamp lamp like the one in the picture. The clamp makes it easy to attach the light to the clear storage containers I use for seedlings. You can get a light fixture like this from Wal-mart or you can order it from Amazon.
When the day time temperatures warm up to at least 65 degrees, you could also try taking them outside for a few hours and then bringing them back inside at night. Don’t put them in direct sun the first time, the shock could kill them. Instead, put them in a shaded spot – they’ll still get more indirect sunlight than they would if they were indoors. A covered deck or porch is a good place to start.
Keep the soil moist, but not soggy
It’s very easy to go from one extreme to the next with watering. If you neglect to water your seedlings they will shrivel and die. If you over water them and leave them sitting in a puddle, they will drown. The soil should always remain moist, but it should never be dripping with water. Give just a few drops at a time to avoid soaking them.
Give them more space – transplant them
This is probably the most important strategy that will help you keep your plants alive. When they get too big for the small cells that they were started in, they will run out of room to grow and most importantly – nutrients. If they get root bound, their growth could be stunted. When they run out of nutrients, they also stop growing and may start to die.
Give them more space by transplanting them into larger containers. I graduate my seedlings from the small sprouting cell to a small clear cup. If it gets too big for that cup, I transplant to the larger clear cups or even into four or five inch pots.
Remember to be very gentle when handling seedlings, especially when separating, it’s super easy to break their tiny stems and once it’s broken, that’s it, the plant won’t likely recover.
Plant them deeper, but not too deep
Many times, the seedlings get really leggy as they stretch towards the light and eventually they just topple over like my friend’s did. When you transplant them to give them more space, you also need to plant them deeper so that the soil line is just underneath the first leaves.
You might want to check out the video you see below for a good demonstration of how deep to plant seedlings. After watching, keep reading for more tips below.
If they’re growing so quickly that they’ve used up all the nutrients in the soil (if leaves start yellowing) try feeding them. I’ve given my seedlings some Bio-Tone Starter Plant Food with Mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae is a good type of fungus that as it grows near the plant’s roots, it helps the plant absorb more nutrients from the soil.
I’ve also used a half strength mixture of Miracle Grow. After you feed them, you’ll see the difference almost immediately. I fed my plants one evening and the next morning, I noticed that they grew about an inch overnight.
Talk (or sing) to them
I like to give my plant babies a little pep talk. I tell them things such as “You can do it – grow plants, grow!” I’d like to think that it’s the encouragement that I provide that makes them grow, but most likely it’s the carbon dioxide on my breath that does it. Plants soak up the carbon dioxide from the air and “breathe” out fresh oxygen (I think that’s so cool!) – we were made for each other! Either way, if nothing else but positive energy, I think it’s a great idea to strike up a conversation with your plants.
These are just a few ways to extend the indoor time with your seedlings. Once all threats of frost are over in your area, you’ll need to let the plants harden a bit before transplanting directly into the ground or into its permanent container.
Harden them by placing them in a shaded spot (covered deck or porch) for a few days. Gradually let them spend more time in direct sun for up to a week (don’t forget to water them!) and then they’ll be ready to go.
What’s been your experience with planting and transplanting seeds? Do you have any tips struggling gardeners can use? If you’ve struggled to keep your seedlings alive, tell us about it in the comments section, together maybe we can find a solution to put an end to your frustration.