Flying Blue Dog
Farm & Nursery
Willow Creek, Ca
Wasn’t that a nice little rainstorm we had last week? Each morning I lay in bed longer than usual listening to the rain on the roof and giving thanks. Only days ago I had to water all the outside plants…in February, I had to water! So I lay in bed each morning during the storm and gave thanks for the rain.
A couple of days ago the first hounds tongue bloomed. They are always the first flowers to bloom here on the farm. There is a really nice patch of them over in the woods by the creek and each year at about this time I start watching for flowers. I mark the first bloom times of certain plants on the calendar every year, it’s how I know what time it is here on this land. On our walks in the woods we have seen blooming shooting stars, violets and of course Manzanita, and that tells me about what time it is in that part of the woods, but here on this piece of land I wait for the hounds tongue to tell me. With all the warm dry weather of January and February I would have thought that they would be early this year so I was surprised when I looked at last year’s calendar and saw that they are blooming right about the same time as last year. So maybe it looks and feels like an early spring to us but the hounds tongue seems to be saying something else.
We have been talking about seed germination and have covered timing; soil mixes, sowing seeds, lighting and the need for some kind of bottom heat. Now let’s talk about what happens when the seeds start coming up. These tender babies need to be cared for so that they thrive. This means making sure the lighting is just right, if the light intensity isn’t adequate the seedlings will begin to stretch and this makes them weak. An ordinary shop light with one warm and one cool fluorescent bulb works great for this stage of growth, just be sure that the light is suspended 2 or 3 inches above the tops of your seedlings. The fluorescents don’t give off too much heat so you won’t burn the foliage like you could if you used some other kind of light.
The babies don’t have huge nutrient needs at this stage of growth so be careful not to overdo fertilizer. It is really easy to overdo it, especially with nitrogen. Too much can lead to weak, watery growth that is susceptible to disease organisms and can even fry the tender roots so badly that the plants die. I don’t usually start fertilizing until they have their first set of true leaves and then I do it very carefully using a very dilute amount of good old fish emulsion.
Probably the number one issue people have with seedlings is damping off. It’s a fungal disease that attacks the stem right at the soil level causing the seedlings to wither and topple over. Fungal diseases are caused by too much water, either overly soaked soil or really damp conditions due to overcrowding of the seedlings. If you are using one of those humidity domes on the tray of seedlings be sure to take it off or open it up during the day. I know some of them have built in vents but that isn’t enough ventilation once the seedlings come up. It can get really drippy humid in there and that can lead to disease. A small fan blowing across the tops of the seedlings can help dry them out and keep the air circulating. Keeping a close eye on the moisture content of the soil is crucial. There is no rule of thumb for this, how much and how often to water depends on the soil and temperature. You must observe your plants everyday to see how they are doing. Stick your finger in the soil to see how moist it is or lift the container to weigh it; does it feel light or heavy? Get to know what the soil looks and feels like when it’s dry and when it is wet.
Once the seedlings have their first set of true leaves they can be pricked out and transplanted to their own containers. Gently take the seedlings out of the container they were sown in and using a bamboo shish-ka-bob skewer tease the roots apart and replant each seedling into its own container. If you are using recycled containers be sure they are clean. Soaking them in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water for a few minutes should take care of sterilizing them.