About now, gardeners are beginning to get the annual itch. Catalogs can keep the urge down, but eventually it comes back, growing stronger and stronger – that absolute need to get your hands dirty. To satisfy the craving, we can do some gardening activities inside right now.
If you start your own flower and vegetable transplants, it is time to round up the materials you will need to be successful. Locating the seedling flats is a good start. These are used for a short time ever year, so even though they are very thin plastic, they do last for many seasons. Some have clear lids to help maintain good humidity levels, so dig those out too.
To prevent damping off disease from ruining your efforts, sanitization is key. Giving those flats and lids, a thorough cleaning with a 10% bleach and water solution, followed by a clear water rinse, is a good first step. As long as you are at the kitchen sink or laundry tub, run a second batch of bleach and water and clean up the pots that are going to be used to move the seedlings into. Step two in the fight against seedling diseases is using a soil-less seed starting mix. If yours was stored properly, last spring, great! If in doubt, buy new for this and use last years' up in other ways.
Doing a germination test on the seeds you stored from last year is a project that the whole family can do. It provides a bit of math, chemistry and the discovery of how a seed starts to grow. A general rule of thumb is the larger the seed, the longer it can be stored. The rule for the other thumb is that for every year seeds are kept, there is about a 10 percent reduction in viability. The test is easy to do. Moisten two paper towels, lay one on a dinner plate, sow 10 seeds, cover up with the other paper towel, and slide into a resealable bag. The chemistry part is the water working its way into the seed to get things going, the math is counting how many of the seeds germinate and then determining the germination rate (if 8 of the 10 seeds grow then you have an 80% germination rate). The discovery is watching the seeds swell with moisture that triggers the germination. Observe the changes, especially which end of the seed the young root comes from and then look at the other end for the green cotyledon leaves.
If you can figure out when spring is really going to get here, or at least when you want to put transplants into the garden, take that date and then read the seed packet label to help you know when to start your seeds. It may be a good idea to stagger your seeding for each variety you sow, to allow for any unpredictable weather, or another start-and-stop to spring.
Finally, planning the garden layout at the kitchen table is always easier than standing in the garden the day of planting. Consider wide row gardening for crops such as leafy greens, and consider double cropping a short-season vegetable and long-season vegetable in the same row. A great example is sowing radishes and carrots together. The radishes come up quickly marking the row and are grown and harvested long before they would get in the way of developing carrots. For more on planning your garden, visit web.extension.illinois.edu/vegguide/