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Growing flowers and vegetables from seed rewarding in several ways

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Carol Weaver
Master gardener
There are many reasons to raise your own annual flowers and vegetables from seed. Aside from the personal satisfaction you gain from successfully propagating your own plants, you can grow varieties that are not readily available at the local nursery or big-box store. Growing from seed may also be more economical than purchasing small plants at retail prices.
If you have started your seeds in flats, you will see that as your seedlings grow, they require more space. Don’t leave seedlings in the flat too long, but transplant them when the first true leaves appear, usually 2-3 weeks after seeding (Note: True leaves appear after the seed leaves, or cotlydedons. Seed leaves usually lack the shape and detail of the first true leaves, which resemble the leaves of the adult plant in miniature).
The containers into which you transplant your seedlings should be economical and durable. Make efficient use of available space. Individual pots or plastic cell packs can be used.
Dig up the small plants carefully with a knife or plant label. Let the group of seedlings fall apart and pick out individual plants. Ease them apart gently to avoid root injury in the process. Handle small seedlings by their leaves rather than their delicate stems.
Punch a hole in the medium into which the seedling will be planted. Plant a seedling at the same depth it was growing in the seed flat. Firm the medium and water gently.
Newly transplanted seedlings should not be placed in bright, intense light for a few days after transplanting; shading may be needed. Keep them away from sources of direct heat. Continue watering and fertilizing as in the seed flats.
If you wish to avoid transplanting seedlings altogether, compressed peat pellets are excellent for direct sowing. The pellets expand to form compact individual units when soaked in water. They waste no space, do not fall apart as easily as peat pots, and can be set out directly in the garden.
If plants produced inside are planted outdoors without undergoing a hardening period, their growth may be severely limited. Hardening is the process of conditioning a plant for growth outdoors. It is most critical with early spring crops, when adverse weather conditions can be expected.
Hardening is accomplished by decreasing temperature and relative humidity gradually, and reducing water. This procedure results in accumulation of carbohydrates and thickening of cell walls. A change from a soft, succulent type of growth to a firmer, harder type is desired.
The process should be started at least two weeks before planting in the garden. Place plants outside in a protected area on warm days and increase the length of exposure gradually. Do not put tender plants outdoors on windy days or when temperatures are below 45 degrees. Even cold-hardy plants will be injured if exposed to freezing temperatures before they are hardened. The hardening process is intended to slow plant growth, but if carried to an extreme, significant damage can occur.
When the plants have been hardened and it is time to place them in your garden, take the time to make sure the planting hole is large enough, plant so the seedling is at the same depth it was in the pot and make sure its roots are spread out and not severely bent.
Slow-release fertilizers are an excellent amendment for flowerbeds because they give the plants an even supply of nutrients throughout the growing season. Several formulas are available, although one with at least an 8- to 9-month release duration is recommended. Follow manufacturer recommendations for application rate.
After planting, apply about three inches of mulch on the soil surface to conserve moisture and prevent weeds. Fine-textured mulches, such as pine straw or pine bark mini-nuggets, stay seated better on the bed than coarse-textured mulches.
Finally, water thoroughly. A liquid fertilizer can be applied with the water at planting to provide immediate nutrients.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.