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Encourage hearty seedlings after they sprout

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Posted: Saturday, April 21, 2012 10:10 am | Updated: 1:49 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - When last we met, my leek seeds had just been sown and I was grinning at a task accomplished and a future of leeks that didn't cost me between $2.49 and $3.99 a pound. Well, the leeks have sprouted, so now I want to talk about how they have been treated since emergence.

I have had leeks come up as quickly as five days (when pre-soaked) and as slowly as two weeks after sowing. So, three days after planting, I start lifting up the damp newspaper covering every flat to check for any hint of green. This year the first sign of germination was at six days.

I took off the paper, touched several places in each flat to check moisture levels and watered those that were dry. Overhead watering is dangerous at this stage because it can dislodge young seedlings, so I either use a spray bottle or bottom watering. This means I have to find a flat with no holes in the bottom and set a holey flat of leeks inside it, lifting up the corner to pour warm water in the bottom flat. When the top of the soil is wet to the touch because the soil has wicked up the water, I lift out the flat so the seedlings are not sitting in water.

Uncovered and watered, the flats are put under fluorescence (you don't need expensive grow lights) that are moved up as the seedlings grow, always staying about 2 inches above the top of the plants. If your lights cannot be pulled up, put the containers on books or bricks, removing a book and thus lowering the containers and flats as the seedlings get taller.

I keep the lights on 14 hours a day, although I have had years when I had so many seedlings that I had to use 12 hour shifts. It was a nightmare, putting one set of containers or flats under the lights and then replacing them with other seedlings 12 hours later, but everything thrived.

Once the seedlings are about two weeks old and established enough so that I can see which ones are the most sturdy, it will be time for thinning. Leeks will flourish while quite close to each other, so thinning is less intensive. But other seedlings need more space, so thin accordingly. (In fact, the more lanky the leeks, the more of the stalk you can bury and so the more blanched vegetable you will harvest. However, this is not true for most vegetables.) Be sure to use sharp scissors to cut the extras off at the soil line, not your finger tips, or you will end up disturbing the roots of the seedlings you mean to keep.

Two weeks of age also is when I start fertilizing once a week with warm diluted liquid fertilizer, which for me means fish fertilizer. Finally, I begin my twice-a-day habit of running my hands or a piece of paper gently over the tops of all the seedlings, to encourage sturdier stems and airflow.

See you in two weeks, when I will be doing transitional transplanting.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net.

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