There's nothing quite like growing your own plants from seeds. Much depends on careful attention to seedlings started indoors for later planting in the garden or in containers on the balcony. They need all the light they can get - daylight, sunlight or electric light 12 to 14 hours daily. Without bright light, the seedlings will become weak and spindly.
When seedlings have grown the second set of true leaves (leaves characteristic of the mature plant), feed them, preferably from the bottom as for watering. Use Hyponex, Ra-Pid-Gro or similar plant food at the strength recommended on the package for seedlings.
Seedlings to be used in the garden will benefit from one transplanting into another deeper container before they are large enough to plant outdoors. Tender annuals, tomatoes and peppers, for example, need such transplanting.
Plants grown in peat pellets are not transplanted; the soil around the roots is undisturbed and, when ready, the plants are moved directly to the final growing site.
Seedlings that are to be houseplants are transplanted directly from the seed pot to the growing pot. For transplanting, use a ready-made mix much as Black Magic, Ev-Vee, other brands available locally or your own potting mix as discussed in an earlier column.
Care and patience must be exercised in handling such small plants. Seedlings roughly dug or pulled out of the container may not survive. Dig out the plantlets and gently separate them for moving individually to new containers. A plastic picnic fork is a useful digging tool. Handle seedlings by their leaves; do not grasp the stem between your fingers and crush it.
Roots are living plant parts and should not be allowed to dry out in transplanting. Move the seedling with soil adhering to roots if possible. If interrupted in the process, spread a protective cover over any exposed roots.
Set the plant in a depression made in the potting soil. Don't try to jam the roots in a space too small. Add soil and gently press with your fingers around the roots to assure good contact of roots with the new growing medium. Provide as much space her plant as possible when the container is large enough to hold a number of plants; about 2 inches all around is good measure.
Apply a small amount of tepid water around each plant; then set the container in a tub for watering from the bottom; drain. Place in good light.
As the plants grow, water them with soluble fertilizer diluted to the seedling strength. Small seedlings may require frequent watering; on the other hand, the roots must have air as well as water, so take care not to drown them.
Any young plants that show a tendency to grow up straight with little or no branching should be pinched back when only a few inches high. The tip of the growing shoot should be removed with fingernails; fingernail scissors are useful for the purpose. This step arrests the upward growth and stimulates development of lateral branches down the stem, resulting in a more compact or bushy plant.
When danger of frost is past and the night temperatures remain about 65 degrees, it is time to move th e plants to their permanent location.
Give the young plants a "hardening off" period first, making the plants ready for outdoors. Any time the outdoor temperature is 45 degrees or warmer in the shade, place the containers outdoors in light shade protected from wind. If frost threatens, bring them indoors again.
Allow about two weeks for this hardening off. By degrees, the plants will have adjusted to the outdoors and will be sturdy enough to transplant into the garden, window box or balcony planter.
Transplant to the garden or porch boxes on a cool, cloudy day. Provide some shade for the first day or two. Take care not to damage roots in the final transplanting. Make an ample hole for each plant and water it well after it has been set in place.
Do not transplant to the garden seedlings that are obviously too small; for instance, a 2-inch tomato plant cannot make it in the outdoor garden because it does not have sufficient roots to become established in the harsh environment.
Petunias, verbenas, salpiglossis and other tender annuals are not safe outdoors until mid-May.