For some people, the great excitement leading up to the holiday season gives the mind a point of focus away from the mental challenge of the short winter days. While some call it depression, many refer to this winter phenomenon as seasonal affective disorder.
While young seedlings do not suffer from the same ailment, plants and humans can still benefit from a similar light therapy of higher light levels or greater light duration. Instead of setting myself in front of a bright florescent light and gazing into an artificial sun, I prefer to position myself strategically in our small greenhouse and strengthen my core like the tomatoes and cucumbers around me.
While we vegetable gardeners are still on the early side of the curve for starting seeds destined for the Coastal Plains garden, it is not too early to begin thinking about how you will start your seeds and what growing conditions you will need.
Let us assume that you have already carefully dog-eared the pages of your favorite seed catalog and the delivery date has been set; so now, let us focus on the key factors of good seed germination, water, temperature, oxygen and light.
Assuming that the seed is viable and all physical, chemical, or physiological barriers to germination have been overcome, subjecting the seed to the proper environmental conditions, will result in a vigorous new seedling. Water is the first critical element as the seed must absorb moisture to soften the seed coat so that the embryo can emerge.
As the seed begins to imbibe water, temperature contributes significantly to the rate and percentage of germination. Each plant species will have a maximum, minimum and optimal temperature at which the seed will germinate best.
In general, 65-70 degrees F is a good starting point.
In addition to ample moisture and warm soil temperature, the availability of oxygen around the seed can also impact the germination process. This factor emphasizes the need for a loose, well aerated potting mix, and not the native sandy or clay soils of the area.
While it is often thought that natural light is necessary within the greenhouse or cold frame for germination, in reality, some seeds will only germinate in darkness, others in light, and the remainder in either.
With germination underway and the new growth emerging, light plays an increasing role as the plant needs to begin to produce its own food after depleting the energy stored within the seed. Once the first set of true leaves has emerged, the tender young plant may need that same supplemental lighting that I benefit from through the winter doldrums.
Place the florescent light fixtures 6-12 inches above the developing seedling and provide 12-16 hours of supplemental lighting to help the young plant develop short, strong stems. Once the plants have been properly hardened-off (gradually acclimated to the outside growing conditions) and the threat of spring frost has passed, you will be off to a running start toward a season of fresh vegetables.
Read more about Starting Plants from Seed at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8703.html.
Bob Filburn is an Edgecombe County Extension Service agent specializing in horticulture. Look for his Garden Guide each month on the Community page.