Lezlie Sterling / lsterling @sacbee.com

Gail Pothour looks through her collection of seeds at her home. This time of year, that's more than just idle-time fun for those who want a garden full of veggies a few months from now.

Tips to get your garden up and running

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6CALIFORNIA LIFE

Want to take the plunge into starting seeds? Here are tips from experts Gail Pothour, Bill Bird and Jenn Hammer:

Selecting seeds

• Choose seeds for things you and your family like to eat. No point growing radishes if no one's going to eat the final product.

Favorite seed companies cited include Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds. com); Renee's Garden Seeds (www. reneesgarden.com and in some area garden shops); Lockhart Seeds in Stockton; Botanical Interests (www.botanicalinterests.com); BBB Seed (www.bbbseed. com); Solano County's Wild Boar Farms (www. wildboarfarms.com), which specializes in tomatoes, and Oregon's Territorial Seed Co. (www.territorialseed. com).

• Make sure seeds you buy are for the current season – check the date on the envelope. If it's not dated, write the year on the package for future reference. Leftover seeds usually are good for two or three years.

• If a seed package does not have a photo of the particular vegetable or flower – some companies put the same picture on all packages – cut one from the catalog or print it off the Internet and attach that to the package. You'll be glad you did.

Gathering equipment

• Use the right medium. Avoid potting soil at this point – it's too chunky and won't produce optimum germination. Seed-starting mix can be purchased ready-made at nurseries and home stores or, as Hammer does, you can make it yourself. (She uses one part perlite, one part vermiculite and one part sphagnum moss.) Jiffy pellets, which expand in water, are widely available.

• Containers can be commercial products or recycled items, but they should be clean and a minimum of 2 inches deep (3 to 4 inches is better) with drainage holes. Pothour warns not to use egg cartons or eggshells – they're too shallow. Or make your own pots from newspaper (see box on Page 5). A tray or plastic container will catch drips.

• Have a source of warmth first, for germination, then a source of light for growth. This can be as easy as the top of your refrigerator, a sunny window sill or, after germination, under-cabinet fluorescent lights in the kitchen.

• To keep warmth and moisture in, use plastic wrap, lids or domes. Lettuce mix containers (the deep ones with flat tops) are ideal mini- greenhouses, as are clean containers from rotisserie chicken.

Get planting

• Read the seed label to check the timing. Tomatoes can be started about eight weeks before planting date. Pothour puts her tomatoes in the ground on Sacramento's unofficial tomato planting day, April 28, which also is "Farmer Fred" Hoffman's birthday. So she'll have her tomato seedlings started by the end of February.

• Certain vegetables, including corn and beans, should not be started indoors – sow them outside when the weather warms up. Root vegetables such as carrots also should be direct-sown, to avoid disturbing the root.

• Beets and hard-shell seeds often benefit from a couple of hours soaking in water before sowing.

• Make the labels first. That way you can label as you go and won't have to try to guess which pellet or plug is which.

• Put two or three seeds in each pot or cell. And start a few more plants than you'll think you need, to allow for a less-than-optimal germination rate.

• Have a small dowel, chopstick or wooden skewer handy to poke holes in the medium and to push down seeds. Pothour marks one with 1/4-inch increments so she can get the right depth.

• Use painter's tape to re-close a seed envelope. It won't rip the package when you want to reopen it later.

Germination and beyond

• Keep the soil moist but not too wet, to avoid growth of mold or a fungal condition known as "damping off" that can kill a seedling. A small misting bottle is useful for moistening soil without overwatering.

• Be sure to remove or loosen the plastic covering to give the plants air.

• Use a small fan to gently blow on seedlings. That will strengthen them in advance of planting outdoors.

• Thin seedlings by snipping with scissors or fine clippers at soil level so you don't harm the roots of the plants you wish to keep.

• Shop lights are just as effective as fancy "grow lights" and cost much less. If you can't adjust the height of the light, put seedling flats or trays on piles of cardboard boxes to keep them close to it.

• Keep a journal or use a calendar to record what you planted when and how. This will be invaluable next year.

Have questions?

The Fair Oaks Horticulture Center will hold Open Garden Day 9 a.m. to noon next Saturday. Master gardeners including Gail Pothour will be on hand to talk to visitors. 11549 Fair Oaks Blvd, Fair Oaks.

– Kathy Morrison

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