Prove your humanity

There is snow on the ground across our listening area, but if you are a gardener, or want to be, it’s not too early to start planning — and even planting — for your spring and summer dream garden, whether it’s in your yard or on your patio or stoop.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Doug Oster, longtime Pittsburgh gardening personality, writer and editor at dougoster.com. He says you don’t need to be a green thumb to start your own seeds. Just follow his tips to grow the special varieties of flowers and vegetables that you can only get from seed.

LISTEN to their conversation

Holsopple: Why start your own seeds? Is it worth it? 

Doug Oster: First off, it’s a way to save money. Secondly, it’s the only way that you can grow certain unique

Doug Oster

Courtesy of Doug Oster.

varieties. You know, we all start gardening thinking, “Oh, I’m glad I didn’t kill it.” 

The next thing is we want to grow something different than the next door neighbor. In my case, I’ve gone down the weird rabbit hole years ago, like a winter radish called China Rose, which is the size of a softball, and a tomato called Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter. It has a story and it’s going to be hard to find the plants. 

The third thing is there’s just a certain satisfaction of growing from seed. You’re going to grow the plants exactly the way you want them to grow. Tomatoes are a great example. You can go to the nursery and get a really nice big plant for five or 10 bucks. But in my case, I’ll start an Early Girl or Sungold varieties — ones that put on tomatoes early — down in the basement so that I have those big plants for myself.

Holsopple: I was reading on your website that just like last year, this is going to be a really popular gardening year because of the pandemic, and seeds are already starting to get a little scarce in some places.

Oster: If you want seeds, either order them or go to your garden center today. It’s been so crazy this year. One big company I know of shut down twice in January, and they’re working 24/7 to fill orders. That also includes seeds that you would direct sow in the garden later in the season — your beans, cucumbers, and squash plants.

Go get those seeds. If you buy too many seeds, you can always give them to a friend. I always like to say there’s always room for one more seed somewhere in the garden.

Here are Doug’s Tips for Starting Seeds

Seeds to start now, later

Mid-February are the smallest seeds, and the things that take the longest to come to fruition. From the flower standpoint, we’re starting dust-like seeds now, which would be impatiens, begonias, and petunias, if you want to grow those from seed, because it takes so long to get a good-sized plant. 

But from the vegetable side, it’s time to sow seeds for cool weather crops that you want to get out there that don’t care about a frost once things change in mid-March. So you could start lettuce, other greens, and onions. Those would be the first ones to go out early.

The other thing we would start towards the end of February would be peppers, because they take so long to germinate and get to fruition.

But the number one plant for people to start from seed is tomatoes, and you can start seeds for those mid-March and the main crop even as late as April 1st. You don’t want them to get too big. You’d have to have lights that are tall enough for a 12 inch, maybe eventually an 18 inch plant if you start too early, and everybody who starts seeds for the first time starts too early.

The easiest to start yourself are definitely peppers and tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, and beets. For any starting gardener, though, tomatoes are the easiest.

Sowing seeds

Get what’s called a planting mix at a garden center or nursery. It’s just a very lightweight medium. 

The first trick is to get that medium to the right moisture before you put it into the trays. I just save the six packs and trays from last year’s annual flowers. You could buy some kind of container like that, or you could use anything with drainage. 

Mix up the planting mix by adding the water in a different container, like a big tub, depending on how much you’re using. Mix some water in there until you can squeeze the planting mix so that it sticks together, but it doesn’t drip. Then fill the little six packs or whatever the containers you are using, with that growing  medium, and push it down so that it’s pretty compact. 

Then all that you need to do for most seeds is just sprinkle them on the top of the mix, and try to only do one per little container, but you’ll always drop two or three here and there. 

Then sprinkle a little bit more moist mix on top, and press it down, making good contact between the seed and the soil. 

Now you’ve got to cover the whole thing with clear plastic, and that stops it from drying out. This is one of the critical things to get the seeds to sprout. 

Light source

The absolute most important thing is that you have some kind of lighting system. LEDs are the way to go because they’re bright and cheap to run. You can actually go to the hardware store and buy these little lights that are 45 inches long, but only about an inch wide and they’re magnetized on the back. You can just stick it up on a piece of metal. Each light equals two fluorescent shop lights. LEDs use a lot less energy and they’re super bright.

Bring the LED or fluorescent shop lights as close to the plant as you can get them, and raise them as the plant gets bigger

You can get away sometimes with sprouting seeds by placing the containers in a big south- facing window, but if we have a gray start to the season, the plants can get what we call “leggy.” They get spindly. The plants need super strong light. 

Another good trick is to have something reflective around the plants like reflective tape from the hardware store. This works for a small area, but back in the day, I would surround the plant trays with aluminum foil. You’re using the same amount of light, but you’re getting that reflective surface. 

Run the lights for about 18 hours.

Placement of seed trays

You can start seeds anywhere in your house where it’s above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but warmer is better. Some things like peppers are hard to germinate unless they get really warm. 

Sometimes we put a heat mat underneath them. But if you have a basement that’s 65 or 70 degrees, they’ll sprout.

After seeds sprout

As soon as those seeds sprout, remove the plastic on top of the containers. They’ll first start off with a leaf that doesn’t look like the plant, but that next set of leaves are the true leaves. 

Then start fertilizing with a liquid fertilizer at half strength, and then eventually in a few weeks, go up to full strength once a week or every other week.

The one thing that you need to know when you’re growing them under light is before you put them out in the garden, they need a process of hardening off to get ready for the harsh conditions of spring. 

Take them out, not in full sun, just in the shade for a couple hours, then bring them back in. 

Over a week, you extend that time until they can finally live on their own overnight. It toughens them up. During this time add no fertilization, and dry them out a little bit so they’re ready to go in the garden.

Doug Oster is a longtime Pittsburgh gardening personality who loves to get his hands dirty and help other people do the same. He writes and is the editor at dougoster.com.