Minnesota gardening is tricky business. Try starting your seeds indoors.

Minnesota gardening is tricky business. Try starting your seeds indoors.

The first thing to do, of course, is figure out what you want to plant

When Sonja Anderson started working at Gertens Greenhouse & Garden Center in Inver Grove Heights in 2002, she struggled to get people to attend her seed-starting workshops.

“Then the recession of 2008 happened, and then the young people latched onto it,” she said. “They all want fresh food.”

Growing fresh food is easier said than done here in Minnesota, land of wild temperature swings, late frosts, short growing seasons and evening temperatures that could charitably be described as “cool.” So, what’s a frustrated-but-optimistic gardener to do?

Starting seeds indoors is a thrifty way to get a jump start on spring. Here are some east metro gardening experts with tips for how to pull it off.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

The first thing to do, of course, is figure out what you want to plant.

“Vegetables are always popular to start by seed,” said Kim Mourning, manager of Lilydale Garden Center in St. Paul. “It’s cheaper than buying them per plant. Instead of $2 to $3 per plant, you can just get a pack of seeds and have a whole row.” Modern seed varieties may withstand diseases better, but heirloom vegetable varieties tend to have better flavor and aren’t genetically modified, Mourning noted.

Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to grow, check out the University of Minnesota Extension Service’s  timetable for how much indoor growing time popular varieties of flowers and vegetables need. Work backward from there, using mid-May as your tentative date for moving your plants outside.

“Just as a general rule, you never want to put anything outside until May 15, and some things are more tender than that,” Mourning said, noting that herbs and tomatoes can be especially sensitive to chill,

PREPARATION

If you’re working with a seed-starting tray you used last year, Anderson recommends a good rinsing “with just a spot of bleach” to kill any lingering fungus or disease, followed by a thorough air-dry.

Cindy Lien of Highland Nursery in St. Paul said peat seed-starting pots are a good alternative to plastic trays. They dry out a little more quickly, but since the entire pot can be dropped right in to the garden bed, they’re a good choice for more delicate plants that would struggle with being transplanted.

Next, take some seed starting mix (not potting soil), add just a little water and then toss with your hands. “You want to feel moisture, but you don’t want it to be wet,” Anderson advised.

Fill the seed-starting tray or peat pot with the moist potting mix and lightly tamp it down without packing it too densely. Anderson recommends making an indent if about 1/8 of an inch with your fingertip. Drop the seeds into the indentation, sprinkle with vermiculite and then  mist with a sprayer. Too much water at this stage would drown the seedlings or encourage rot.

READY, SET, GROW

As the seeds are germinating,  keep them away from direct sunlight, because it may be too strong for tiny plants. “If you give them too much light too quickly, they can burn very easily,” Lien said.

A heating mat, if you have one, can help encourage strong root growth. Once a few sets of “true leaves” — the real leaves of the plant, rather than the cotyledons, which look like leaves but are actually part of the seed — emerge, the seedling can be transplanted.

Move it to a bigger container with some potting soil (not seed starter). By the second week of March, a windowsill should provide enough sunlight for the seedling, which by now is strong enough to handle it. The final step — moving the plant outdoors — is where things get tricky. Mourning said once nighttime temperatures reach the mid-50s, you’re safe.

By: Will Ashenmacher

Source, credits & more information: TwinCities

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