Q: For the past couple of seasons, I have started seeds for our community garden under light systems in peat pellets and then transferred the seedlings to 4- to 5-inch plastic pots, holding them in cold frames until the temperatures were right before transplanting into raised beds or containers. Can I skip the peat pellets and plant seeds directly into 4.5-inch plastic pots, and then transplant the seedlings at the appropriate time into the soil, with maybe a stopover in our cold frames? My concern is — will the seeds germinate as well in larger planting containers as they would in smaller containers? Also, are you OK with using growing products like ProMix for seeds-to-seedlings growth?
A: Yes, you can certainly do your planting in one step. Use seed-starting mix — and I'm not sure that ProMix makes one, but you could add a quarter Perlite to the standard mix. You need seed-starting formulas that are very light, which allow the tiny roots to thrive.
Use the plastic pots if you already have them and are going to save them and use them again, then you won't have to worry about recycling them.
CowPots are wonderful and biodegradable and don't smell of manure. But they are costly since you have to buy them new every year. Just use a little caution and care when you slip the plants out of the pot and plant them in the "real" garden.
Plastic pots may actually be easier to handle if any of the seeds require a very early starting period. I used the CowPots for a few geranium cuttings — granted they were potted and kept damp for several months — and they did begin to disintegrate, but CowPots are not meant for long-term growing.
Remember that seed germination time is somewhat controlled by temperature and light, not by the container.
Q: Every year around Easter, there are dire warnings about the toxic qualities of Easter lilies if eaten by kitties or kids. With so many of us buying Easter lilies this month, can you tell me again if they should be kept out of the house completely? I have two cats and a very young toddler in the house — this lily scare sounds just like the now debunked poinsettia scare.
A: No, this is not a scare that is going to go away like the poinsettia scare of a few years back, which was corrected in recent years. Lilies of all varieties — including the beautiful white Easter lilies, pink rubrums and other lilies, whether growing in a pot or cut and used in an arrangement — are very toxic, and deadly to both cats and kids if they are eaten. This is especially so for cats. Lilies can cause irreversible kidney damage before you even know that any part of the plant has been nibbled. In a matter of a few hours, the cat develops diarrhea, vomiting and complete kidney function collapse, and then is dead. Keep all your little ones safe, both two-footed and four-footed. Keep all lilies away from them, no matter how beautiful the flowers are.
Q: You're always talking about how we should use bought dirt instead of garden dirt for anything potted. I understand why I can use this dirt during the winter when everything is frozen, but why should I bother with the additional expense at a time when I need the most soil? And what kind should I buy?
A: Soil isn't just dirt. In fact, most soil today isn't soil at all. It's a balanced growing medium that contains no "dirt" at all — a sterile growing medium.
Why not use dirt? Dirt from the yard contains all sorts of microorganisms that can kill a tiny, new seedling, and it packs too firmly for tiny roots to penetrate. If you're going to spend the time and energy needed to grow plants, do it with the right soil and avoid disappointment. Old garden soil or soil from old houseplants can be full of surprises and problems you don't need. Those tiny seedlings could be exposed to all sorts of problems, from dampening off to molds and mildews, not to mention the bugs. Use sterile soil for these tender babies. It's worth the money and energy.
What kind of soil to buy? Specific soils for pots and containers, made and mixed for the needs of a specific species, are a good choice. But even with a professional mix, you may choose to augment the mix to compensate for your plant's needs for heavier or lighter-than-average watering, light, or even desired growth or condition of the plant. Even what kind of a pot you use can make a difference — plastic or ceramic (they hold moisture longer) or clay (they dry out faster than plastic). Do you need the fertilizer added to the soil? How often you need to fertilize? These are all factors that will contribute to your choice. If in doubt, you could ask one of the well-qualified salespeople at the store or nursery.
This week's dirt
I want you to know that I'm chionophobic — I have a fear of snow, especially in April. Could it happen? You all remember the April Fools' Day storm, and this spring The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts the last snow of the year is in late April. ... It could happen.
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Reach Barbara Barger by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.