A Gardener’s Diary: Seedlings begin their journey

Avid gardener Jocelyne Sewell explains the best methods and the best seeds for early germination

This is only March and already I am running short of space for all my little seedlings.

Because my greenhouse is not heated and the nights are still very cold, a lot of them have to stay in the house. Some of the soup peas I was testing for germination rate grew fast in the house. I had to do something with them as they were starting to hold themselves up by clinging to the cords from the living room blinds. I transplanted them to some bigger pots and put them in the cold frame on a sunny day. So far they have endured a few cold nights with the windows closed and don’t seem to have suffered too much.

Spinach are packed with lutein for eye health and are a good source of anti-cancer compounds including vitamins A and C, beta-carotene and flavonoids. A lush bed of them will please any gardener and cook. Young seedlings with two true leaves are as easy to transplant as any veggie as long as you do everything you can to prevent stress to your little spinach plants. This means having a rich bed ready and waiting, covered with a plastic tunnel, glass window frame, or other protective enclosure. Using spinach seedlings helps stretch the spring season garden-fresh spinach. Starting spinach seeds indoors is well worth doing.

Although spinach germination can proceed but very slowly at temperatures near freezing, spinach seeds sprout best at temperature 59-68°F (15-20°C) — yet another reason to start your first garden spinach of the year indoors. As the weather warms in spring, you can direct-sow a second planting. You can alternate spinach seed with pinches of faster-growing lettuce or arugula which can be pulled as the spinach needs more room to grow. You can also alternate rows of spinach with onions, which make good garden companions. Upright onions don’t crowd the spinach, and the spinach helps shade out weeds between rows of onions. Because of its saponin content, spinach is a useful pre-crop and does well planted with strawberries.

Like all seeds, spinach germination takes place in three stages: soaking up moisture, growing new cells inside the seed, and finally the emergence of the radicle, or sprout. Several studies have shown that spinach germination rates are higher and more uniform when the second stage is prolonged a bit, in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, before the seeds move on to a full sprout. Scientists call this process “priming” and it’s easy to do at home.

About a week before planting, soak spinach seeds in room temperature water for 24 hours. Place the wet seeds on a paper towel, and allow to dry at room temperature for a day or two. Shift the seeds to an airtight container, and keep in a cool place for up to a week. The primed seeds will retain enough moisture to complete the first two stages of germination.

After planting, primed spinach seeds germinate in only five days, compared to 10 or more for seeds straight out of the packet. I will try some and compare with my way of pre-germinating on damp towels. Getting a good stand comes down to spoiling your garden spinach, and the same tricks to promote spinach germination in spring come in handy in the fall. Spinach loses its enthusiasm for sprouting at temperatures over 75°F (24°C), so you can prime a few seeds before starting them indoors in late August, and direct-sow when temperatures cool down.

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Jocelyne Sewell is an organic gardening enthusiast in the North Okanagan, a member of the Okanagan Gardens & Roses Club and Morning Star columnist, appearing every other Wednesday.