These marigolds Master Gardener Burt Knisely is growing in the basement of his Spring Garden Township home were seven days old on March 7.
These marigolds Master Gardener Burt Knisely is growing in the basement of his Spring Garden Township home were seven days old on March 7. (WEEKLY RECORD - SONYA PACLOB)
Master Gardener Burt Kniseley of Spring Garden Township is spending a lot of time in his basement these days.

He can be found there from early February to late April. He's getting a jump on spring by planting seeds indoors.

"I usually plant almost all annual flowers, maybe a few tomatoes and peppers, but I enjoy the flowers most," he said. "You can find seeds in catalogs and in most hardware stores."

You will need containers for the plants, and it's a matter of choice and what works best for your space.

"I start the majority of my seeds in plastic window boxes, and occasionally plant in small plastic pots. Many people start their seeds in starting containers which contain anywhere from 12 to 72 small cells," Kniseley said.

Master Gardener Burt Kniseley sows seeds into small boxes March 7 in the basement of his Spring Garden Township home.
Master Gardener Burt Kniseley sows seeds into small boxes March 7 in the basement of his Spring Garden Township home. (WEEKLY RECORD - SONYA PACLOB)
"You can also purchase peat pellets, peat blocks and fiber-based blocks which, when moistened, form their own small containers. Others have success starting seeds in egg cartons or the bottom of milk cartons."

He uses window boxes that are 24 inches long, 7 inches wide and 5 inches high and small pots that are about 2 inches, but other sizes can be used depending on the space available.

While it is fine to use your choice of containers to start seeds, what you put in those containers to receive the seeds can be the secret to success or failure.

"The growing media is more important than the type of container. The most practical growing media is a purchased soil-less mix developed for seed starting. These are usually a mixture of sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite and perlite," Kniseley said. "Do not try to start seeds in garden soil unless it is sterilized by heating and modified with vermiculite and peat."

It takes the right kind of lighting, such as a sunny windowsill or florescent lights, and a little heat helps, too.

"Germination of many seeds can be speeded up and improved by using electric heating mats to warm the starting media. Normally seeds germinate best if the media is in the range of 72 to 85 degrees," he said.

Electric heating mats are available in many sizes, starting at nine inches by 20 inches, he said.

Kniseley grows seedlings because "It is fun and enjoyable. There is a sense of accomplishment and the results are colorful," he said.

But is it economical?

"This may be a gray area," he said. "Supply catalogs list shelving, grow lights, cold frames and other seed-growing items costing hundreds of dollars. My equipment is almost all low-cost, handmade, cast-offs, hand-me-downs that do the job. Most of these items last for years, so my equipment cost is negligible.

His out-of-pocket costs are approximately $300 a year or about 25 cents per plant, he said.

* * *

For Master Gardener Frank Sommer of Chanceford Township, planting seeds indoors is a cure for cabin fever and a practical way to save money on plants.

"You plant them inside under lights to get early plants going and later you move them outside," he said.

Be careful not to keep the soil too wet, he said. Seeds need oxygen to germinate and, if the soil is too wet, oxygen is not available.

Some seeds require light to germinate, while others should be kept in the dark. Sommer's advice is to "read the instructions on the pack and don't give up."

A lot of the plants Sommers starts indoors are transplanted to John C.

Master Gardener Burt Kniseley of Spring Garden Township holds tiny ageratum seeds.
Master Gardener Burt Kniseley of Spring Garden Township holds tiny ageratum seeds. (WEEKLY RECORD - SONYA PACLOB)
Rudy County Park, where he and other Master Gardeners - including Burt Kniseley and George Fetrow - spend a lot of time tending their plants. While Sommer and Kniseley concentrate on flowers, Fetrow starts a lot of vegetables for the garden there, Sommer said.

"It is something we all enjoy doing and it is nice to see people visit the park to enjoy the flowers," he said.

Seed-sowing dates

Fibrous begonia, Begonia semperflorens, Feb. 7

Snapdragon, Antirrhinum majus, March 2

Impatiens, Impatiens walleriana, March 4

Petunia, Petunia x hybrida, March 5

Alyssum, Lobularia maritma, March 6

Vinca, Catharanthus roseus, March 13

Coleus, Solenostemon scutellarioides, March 14

Ageratum , Ageratum houstonianum, March 17

Salvia, Salvia splendens, March 20

Tomato, Lycopersicon lycopersicum, April 6

Celosia, Celosia argentea, April 9

French marigold, Tagetes patula, April 12

Zinnia, Zinnia elegans, April 20

"Above dates are my averages over the last seventeen years. Variations in dates can be as much as plus or minus 10 days, depending on the amount of light and space." said Burt Kniseley. My tomato sowing date is almost 3 weeks later than most recommendations, but April 1 to 5 works best for me," Burt Kniseley said.

For the kids

Kids can start seeds too.

Master Gardner Kathy Rohrbaugh of Shrewsbury shares a way to start a simple herb garden and a great project for kids.

"It uses egg shells as planters and bottle caps as stands. I have done this on a small scale, so I don't have directions for larger groups. It could probably be easily figured out," Rohrbaugh said.

What you'll need:

Egg carton
Markers (optional)
Bottle caps
Bag of potting soil, such as Miracle Grow
Your favorite herb seeds, basils, cilantro, parsley

Remove tops from eggshells. Reserve eggs and use for cooking or baking. Wash inside of eggshells and dry thoroughly. Leave the opening wide enough to spoon potting soil into each shell.

Before filling with potting soil, have the children carefully decorate the eggshells with faces. Fill each eggshell with soil and place it on an empty bottle cap. You can also place the empty shells in the egg carton, using it as support for the herbs.

Sprinkle a few of the herb seeds on top of the potting soil. Lightly cover seeds with soil and gently water. Place in a sunny window sill or sunny area in your home or school. Water daily to keep from drying out. The seeds should germinate within two weeks.

Once the danger of frost in our area has passed - usually around Mother's Day here in York County - plant your herbs in your prepared garden.

Seed sowing tips

· Start seeds indoors four, six or eight weeks before the last frost date, depending on the type of seed. There are maps to help you determine the last frost date for the area.

· Some seeds do better when directly sown into the garden soil. Read the back of the seed package for information.

· Seedlings must be "hardened off" before they are planted outdoors. Begin by moving them to a shady outdoor area, making sure to bring them indoors if the nights are cold. During the day move them into the sun for a few hours, increasing the time each day.

· Keep the seedlings well-watered and don't place them directly on the ground if slugs are a problem. Young seedlings are a delicacy for insects.