It's A Hint Of Spring When You See Seeds Sprout In Winter's Depths, Do Planning And Planting Indoors. When It's Warm Enough To Play In The Dirt, You'll Be Ready.

Posted: January 29, 1999

One of the most enjoyable and rewarding activities for a gardener of any age is raising plants from seeds. It's sort of like becoming a mother without the squalling and sleepless nights.

In addition to the pride and pleasure you get from watching the babies sprout and grow, there are many benefits from starting your own seeds: It's cheaper than buying established plants; there's an astonishing variety to choose from; and it gives you something to do in winter when you can't play outside in the dirt.

Some seeds, of course, just get plunked into the garden and pop right up with a little water. But you can't do that now. Now, you can prepare to raise a generation under lights that will be ready to set out when the time is right. It's inexpensive and easy as long as you mind a few rules. Lee Raden of Phoenixville, who grows alpine plants from seed, and Barbara Bromley, horticulturist for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County, N.J., offer some tips to help you succeed.

First, here's what you need to get started: seeds (keep them cool and dry), one or more 4-foot fluorescent shop lights with cool-white tubes that hang from chains, a place to hang them, a fan, seed-starting containers, labels, waterproof trays, sterile soilless planting mix, fertilizer, a timer, and a plan.

The plan comes first. Call your county extension agent to find out the last frost date for your area - it's around Mother's Day in the Philadelphia region, Bromley says - then, consulting seed packets, books and catalogs for information, count back the length of time it will take to grow the seeds to the point where they can be planted in the garden.

You also need to know whether your seeds require light or dark or pre-chilling, and at what temperature to start them. If you're computer handy, establishing a database with this information will save tons of time in future years.

When it's time to plant, dampen your sterile planting medium - usually a combination of sphagnum peat moss and vermiculite or perlite - in a bucket, and put it in containers, which can be anything from plastic cells made for the purpose to yogurt tubs. Just make sure they have holes for drainage.

Plant the seeds thinly according to directions. (If they're tiny, it helps to mix them with coarse sand first.) Label the pots and set them in tepid water for a few minutes or spray gently to moisten the seeds, then put them in trays or saucers, cover the ones that want darkness, slip them into plastic bags for humidity, and set them in a warm or cool place depending on their needs.

Check frequently to see if they've sprouted, and move them under the lights when they do. The lights, timed to stay on about 16 hours daily, should be no more than six inches above the plants. As the seedlings grow, simply raise the lights on their chains.

Bromley, who hears a lot of sad stories in her Trenton office, has a few cautions for the beginner. Use sterile potting mix and containers and put a fan near the lights to reduce the chance of fungus diseases like damping-off, she says. ``Remember, drainage is of the essence. If you leave seedlings in standing water, you'll lose them.'' Be sure to label everything, and know what your seeds need. ``If you have cucumbers, which don't like disturbance, plant three in a pot, and if three come up, trim away two.'' Extension agents will answer specific questions but if you need a short course, she says, ``use the library!''

Most important at this time of year, Bromley says, is self-control. It is too early to start anything in January except lisianthus. ``If you sow seeds now, they will have grown weak and leggy by planting-out time.''

``My garden under lights started a week ago,'' says Lee Raden, who has a couple of drawers full of ribbons from the Philadelphia Flower Show for his seed-grown bulbs and rock garden plants. Raden, with 40 years' intensive gardening experience, admits he doesn't always follow the rules. The bench under a bank of 10 fluorescent shop lights in his Phoenixville Deck House basement already sports pots of campanula, autumn-blooming narcissus, aquilegia, clematis and fritillaria waiting to germinate. ``From now to mid-March, I sow and sow and sow, like a madman. I am a madman!'' he concedes with a grin.

Raden ignores the light and dark requirements most growers follow religiously because ``seeds don't get that in nature. And I haven't used bottom heat for germination in three years,'' he adds, pointing to an expensive heat mat piled high with boxes. Though well-read and knowledgeable, Raden, a vigorous 74, has learned most from his years in the garden. ``You have to kill a lot of plants before you learn what works for you. People who aren't good observers are lousy gardeners.''

Some rules must be followed, however. Because alpine seeds need cold to germinate, more than 300 packets are crammed into the butter container of Raden's refrigerator, getting a winter's worth of chill before he sows them in flats under his carport or under the lights.

And because they need perfect drainage, he plants them in a special mix of high-fired clay pellets from a golf course supply company and granite chicken starter grit. A layer of chicken grit on the pots thwarts mosses and molds, he says, warning that seedlings grown in such soil-free mixes need regular fertilizing. ``Something low in nitrogen and high in phosphorus and potash to get good stems and good roots. ''

Raden also starts seeds in his alpine greenhouse, a 27-foot lean-to crammed with tiny species narcissus, primulas and other plants that like bone-dry summers and cold, moist winters. About 100 pots neatly line the bench where he can keep a watch on them daily. Most show no signs of life. Raden checks the label of one where he has discovered a couple of tiny, round leaves. It is a Cyclamen coem planted in March 1998. The cyclamen will stay here another year, then transfer to a 4-inch pot, where it will remain four more years until it blooms. Such patience this takes! That's nothing.

Like a proud father, Raden lifts a pot of spiky leaves. ``This is Narcissus nevadensis. I've only seen pictures of it. I planted it in 1990, and it has never bloomed for me. Maybe this year!''

Outside, on his 2 1/2 acres of alpine meadows and woodlands punctuated by rare conifers, is where the action is for Raden. Starting plants indoors is just a means to an end, he says. ``You can garden under lights till you're blue in the face, but it ain't like doing it outdoors. The minute I get my plants outside where they have fresh air and sunlight they explode!''

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