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by Pernell Gerver

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"Indoor Seed Starting for Beginners to Experts"

Propagation mat for indoor seed starting and propagationEven though it's still winter outdoors, the new growing season is beginning indoors in the form of seed starting. This is the time of the year to start many different flower, vegetable, and herb seeds which will become transplants for this year's outdoor gardens. It's a yearly ritual for me and many gardeners that signals the start of the new growing season.

It's easy to start seeds indoors and there are many reasons for starting your own seeds including being able to grow an unusual, hard-to-find, or new variety or plant, saving money, starting seeds that need to be started indoors early to get a head start, and having fun in the process.

One of the keys to successful indoor seed starting is using the right equipment and knowing how to use it.

You'll need a seed-starting setup which is comprised of a light source, a timer for the light source, a propagation mat, sterile seed pots and cell packs, and special seed-starting mix for germinating seeds that also must be sterile. Soilless mix for transplants is used when it comes time to transplant the seedlings into cell packs.

Soil ThermometerProper soil temperature is critical for best germination. A soil thermometer should be used to monitor soil temperature. One that is marked with optimum soil temperatures for specific plants is a helpful tool for germinating seeds. Use the soil thermometer along with the propagation mat to keep an eye on soil temperatures in the seedling pots.

Seed SowerMany seeds that are started indoors are no bigger than dust. A seed sower comes in handy to help distribute them more accurately and evenly in the seed pot. The seed sower I use is shaped like a trowel with a thumb-click wheel on the handle. The click wheel causes a vibration that makes the seed "jump" off the sower and into the pot. I find it very handy for those extra-small seeds. I also use it outdoors in the vegetable garden for sowing small seeds like radish and carrot seeds.

I start all of my own flower, vegetable, and herb transplants. Every winter I start several thousand seeds for my garden and home landscape, so I have, by necessity, developed a seed-starting timetable of each and every plant. Each plant has its own proper seed-starting time and it varies, depending on the plant, from 12 weeks (which we're near now) to two weeks before the time the plant should be planted out in the garden. My list is based on the average last frost date of May 31. I start by counting backwards (measured in weeks) from that date.

I've learned over the years that each type of seed has its own ideal seed-starting method and may require special treatment. Oftentimes if you don't have success with a certain type of seed, it probably requires special attention. For each plant I have notes on soil temperature for best germination, to cover, cover lightly, or not to cover seeds, any special formulation of seed-starting mix to use, any seed pretreatments needed before sowing the seeds, whether to direct sow into peat pots, exclude light for germination or not, and any other valuable information I've discovered or learned on how best to start the particular seeds. Knowing what a particular type of seed needs for best germination makes all the difference in the world.

Because each plant is different each step along the way is also different from sowing the seeds in seed pots to transplanting the seedlings to cell packs to getting the seedlings acclimated to the outdoors by "hardening off."

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Pernell Gerver's Gardening Q & Aby Pernell Gerver

"Grow Cutting Indoors until Spring"

Q. I've enjoyed your articles for years and have gained confidence in my gardening abilities with your help. Thank you. I have successfully rooted a slip from my sweet autumn clematis, but now I'm not sure what to do with it. Do I just plant it indoors and wait for spring or do I need to "trick" it into thinking it has "slept" for the winter?

A. Thank you very much for your kind words - I'm glad you enjoy my columns and I'm glad I could help. Also, congratulations on successfully rooting a cutting (also known as a slip) of your plant!

From your question I assume your cutting is currently indoors. Sometimes clematis seeds are given stratification (a cold treatment) to help the seeds germinate, but cuttings, as you have done, do not require this treatment.

Sweet Autumn Clematis

Sweet Autumn Clematis

At this point I would recommend potting up your cutting and growing it indoors until planting time in spring. Put the plant in a bright window or place it under fluorescent lights. If you grow it under lights make sure to keep the light fixture about six inches above the plant at all times. Also, the lights should be on for about 14 hours each day. The easiest way to do that is to plug the fluorescent light fixture into an automatic timer set to be on for 14 hours daily. As a matter of fact, I'm currently growing some clematis seedlings under lights and the lights help keep the young plants short and stocky. You could also grow house plants and start seedlings under the lights if you like.

Either way, whether grown in a window or under lights, two weeks before you plant out your plant you'll need to begin hardening it off. This process gets the plant used to the outdoor conditions. Each day during the two weeks set the pot outside in a protected spot for a few hours then bring it back in at night.

Another way to harden off is to put the plant inside a coldframe. With a coldframe you would not have to bring the plant back and forth inside each day.

After the two week hardening off period you can plant the plant where it is to grow. Sweet autumn clematis is a very vigorous and large vine, so keep that in mind when you're deciding where to plant it.

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