Gardening: Starting seeds entails detailed planning

There is something magical about starting seeds when the snow is deep and the air cold.

Start by planning which includes collecting soil, containers and making sure that there will be a strong light source.

Commercial greenhouses use a fine grade, sterilized potting mix that they purchase in 4 cubic foot bales. It is a light mix enabling seeds to germinate and roots to expand. As it is sterile it is less likely to contain organisms that will cause seedlings to damping-off, rot at the roots. This mix does not contain any soil and plants rely on fertilizer for their nutrients.

Other mixes can be used successfully as long as it doesn’t become hard or waterlogged.

Any container works if it has holes on the bottom to allow excess moisture to escape. Wash away all the dirt and quickly dip it into a light bleach solution to limit the growth of fungi and diseases.

Lights should be bright. South and west windows can work but the plants will need to be turned regularly as they grow towards the sun. Overhead grow and or florescent bulbs work well when positioned within a couple inches of the top of the plants.

Even with everything sterilized, seedlings can start rotting off at the roots if the soil is kept too wet and there is little air circulation. When this occurs, remove all infected plants and dispose of them. Water less frequently and place a fan in the area to help with air movement.

Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, greenhouse operators in Rocky Mountain House for over 30 years, placed hot sand on the soil around plants close to the infected ones to successfully rid themselves of the fungus.

Plants that are spindly with yellowish leaves could be receiving too much moisture. Always check the soil for moisture before watering. Plants will wilt from over and under watering. In both cases the plants cannot access any moisture.

As the potting soil contains no soil and little nutrients, the plants need to be fertilized regularly to grow. Choose a balanced fertilizer and follow the instructions on the package. Too much fertilizer can burn the plant causing the plant to die or just the edges of the leaves to turn brown. Remember, for most plants, less is better than too much.

Ideally, bedding plants should have thick strong stems. Long thin stems could be the result of the plants not getting enough light. Move plants further apart so they are not competing for light or closer to the light source to slow the growth of the stems. When using artificial lights, lower the lights to the plants or raise the plants to the light.

On overabundance of nitrogen fertilizer can also make a plant grow lanky. While nitrogen is needed for growth, the combination of nitrogen and potassium are needed to create a strong stem.

Keeping the temperature low once plants have put down roots and are putting forth top growth will also encourage the plants to develop slower which means sturdier plants.

When seeds are started to early in the season, plants will become overgrown before they are set outside. The tops of the pants can be pruned back to make them bushier and the next season they can be started later.

Little black flying gnats are commonly found in potting soil if it is kept too moist. Allowing the soil to dry between watering discourages these pests. Test the soil before watering and placing sticky paper close to the soil can help eliminate these annoying insects.

Careful watering, planting at the correct time, sterilized soil and containers, a good light source is all that is needed to grow healthy bedding out plants.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist that lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at

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