The tomatoes I grew last summer were eaten long ago. So I turned to the grocery store for more.
The tomato pictured on this page is one that I bought. That "blemish" wasn't there when I chose it at the store. It appeared days later, and I watched it grow as it sat on the countertop.
Do you know what's causing the blemish?
Since the tomato sat in the warm kitchen near a south-facing window, filled with its own juice, the seeds had the perfect medium to sprout. And one of them did just that! It's been fun watching it grow under its parent's skin. In the photo on the left, you can see the root at the top and the two green leaves. You can see the emerging plant in the photo on the right.
The seeds we buy don't have that advantage. They've been extracted from their perfect growing medium, dried and kept in cool conditions until we humans decide when to let them grow.
Why do we start seeds indoors, anyway? The No. 1 reason is length of growing season. Most of the vegetables we grow are native to warmer parts of the world with much longer growing seasons. The Treasure Valley has the warmth in the summer to grow these plants, but not in the spring. Even the plants we grow for flowers may need a head start by germinating indoors.
Starting seeds indoors also gives seedlings protection from things like hungry slugs, snails, bunnies, etc. Indoor germination also keeps seedlings safe from spring floods, late frosts, hail and more.
To start plants indoors, you'll need a planting medium (sterile potting soil, but never garden soil), enough light, warmth and moisture. You'll also need pots.
A lot of things can be used for pots, but some things shouldn't be used. Good pots are any plastic containers that are deeper than they are wide, like yogurt cups or some sour cream tubs. A wider container is harder to keep warm in the center where the seed is. A shallow container doesn't allow roots to grow deep.
Some people like to use old egg cartons, containers labeled as "peat" pots or newspaper formed into cups. With these types of containers, the roots tend to grow into the sides. To keep from tearing off tender root tips when removing the plants from those containers, instead plant the container, seedling and all. Just be sure to tear off any part of the rim of the pot that sticks out of the ground, or it will act as a wick and cause the soil around the transplant to dry out.
READ THE SEED PACKET
Most seed packets will have information on the back regarding seed planting depth, days to germination, spacing the plants in the garden, sun and moisture requirements and the eventual size of the plant. Vegetable seed packets may indicate when you can expect a harvest.
Look at the size of the seeds in the packet and note how deep they should be planted. You'll find that most seeds should be planted three to four times the width of the seed. Large seeds such as melons or gourds should be planted 1-inch to 1 1/4-inch deep and small seeds like lettuce or carrots should be about 1/4-inch deep.
Knowing the number of days to germination is helpful because if a seed doesn't germinate - sprout - by the last day of the range, it's unlikely to do so at all.
Often that's because the planting medium was kept either too wet or too cool; most vegetable seeds won't germinate unless the soil is at least 65 degrees. You can try replanting or use that space for a different variety of seeds.
Room temperature is good enough for most seeds to germinate, but using a heating pad and light bulbs that generate heat will give extra warmth. Be extra careful to keep hot light bulbs far enough above the seedlings that the leaves don't get burned.
PLANT AND ROW SPACING OUTSIDE IN YOUR GARDEN
I have a packet of carrot seeds in front of me. It says to plant the seeds 2 inches apart in the row and the rows should be 12 inches apart. Why can't the seeds be planted 2 inches apart in all directions?
They can. The packets say to plant the rows 12 inches apart for harvesting purposes. If you're going to plant carrots in long rows, you'll need to leave space to get in there and harvest them. If you plant in a 4-foot-wide raised bed as I do, you can plant rows of carrot seeds 2 inches apart. That's the basic principle of "square-foot" gardening.
LIGHT IS CRUCIAL
For best results with your seedlings indoors, you'll need a light source that can be lowered to sit right above the pots and raised as the seedlings grow. Putting them in a window is OK but won't give you optimal results. Using a light source that is too weak or too far from the seedlings will cause them to grow too tall too fast. These seedlings will soon fall over because their stems are too stretched out and weak. The seedlings will never reach their optimum growing and producing capacity.
Most of the vegetables we grow need to be in full sun outdoors. Will a 12-inch-tall plant get enough sun if it's planted on the north side of corn or other tall plants? The height of the mature plant is important for garden planning purposes. Place taller plants to the north of short ones.
'HARDENING OFF,' TRANSPLANTING
In years when we have cool temperatures into early June, you may need to transplant seedlings into larger pots to keep them growing and healthy until they can be hardened off and planted outdoors.
The process of hardening off gets the plants used to the outdoors after having been coddled in perfect indoor conditions from Day One. Start the process on a warm, not too windy day. Put the seedlings in a shady, protected area outdoors for about two hours. Then bring them back inside under lights. Each day, increase the time outdoors in the shade.
After a few days, put the seedlings in full sun for two hours. Then put them back in the shade so the tender leaves don't get burned. Each day, increase the hours in full sun. Soon you'll leave them out overnight, but bring them in if the weather turns frosty.
When the weather finally warms up for good, the plants can go in the garden. That's usually around Memorial Day, but watch the weather. If frost is forecast after you have set transplants out, you may need to cover them with Hot-Kaps, row cover or plastic milk jugs with their bottoms removed.
Questions? Email Elaine at email@example.com. And read her column online every other Thursday at the Statesman's website, www.IdahoStatesman.com/gardening.