With jolly old St. Nick preparing to make his annual reindeer ride, spring seems as far off as the leftover Thanksgiving turkey—even here in north Florida, where our warm spring weather often arrives early.
Don’t let the calendar and cold conditions fool you. If you fancy growing late-winter and early-spring crops from seed in north or central Florida, now is the time to plan your spring garden, order your seeds if you need them and, in some instances, get those seeds started.
Planning ahead is important because it forces us home sodbusters to decide what we’re going to grow and where. Once we know this, we have a good idea how much of each kind of seed will be needed.
Several crops generally started indoors or under glass and set out in the garden in late winter or early spring should be started soon—crops such as tomatoes for much of the state, as well as popular cool-weather crops such as broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce.
There is no immediate need to buy seeds that are generally sown in the garden later in the spring, such as sweet corn, beans or summer squash. However, if the seeds are going to be shipped to you, it is best to order them at least a few weeks before you need them so your planting is not delayed by slow delivery.
I often start seeds indoors during cool months by using a heated seed mat and then moving them to a simple cold frame outdoors once they germinate (an old window supported by blocks of wood).
A cold frame helps protect seedlings from the elements, but is not essential for success.
Alternatively, you can simply place your seedlings outside in a sunny location during the day and move them indoors or to another protected place when needed.
If you have indoor space, a simple fluorescent light fixture will work nicely for growing strong starter plants. You don’t need anything elaborate. A shop light fixture is great. Use cool white bulbs and you are in business. I get my strongest seedlings by positioning the lights just above them—about 1 to 3 inches—and keeping the growing medium moist. I give seedlings 18 hours of light daily.
I prefer to start seeds in a premium potting mix without added bark. I use leftover cell packs from starter plants I previously purchased or peat pots. I scatter a few seeds in each cell and later thin them by snipping off the extras with a pair of small scissors. A heated seed mat helps the seeds germinate more quickly.
Another method is to start seeds in a tray of 100-percent vermiculite. Once seedlings are large enough to handle, a table fork is used to prick out the strongest seedlings from the vermiculite and then each is placed in a pot or cell pack that has been filled with a planting mix.
Once planted, the seedlings should be carefully watered and placed out of direct light. The newly transplanted seedlings may show signs of stress, but they generally should recover within a few hours. Once they recover and no longer droop, the seedlings can be set back out in the sun or under lights.