Seed Starting and the War with Rabbits

Denise Dornbush
Adams County Master Gardener

Last year was the first time in twenty years that I did not plant any annual, perennial or vegetable seeds. Last year the rabbits won. When I was a child I used to wonder why Farmer McGregor was so mean. How much could a small cute family of rabbits eat? Now I know. I have become Farmer McGregor. The wonderful small young seedlings that I planted were tasty morsels that no rabbit could ignore. I planted marigolds, scattered human hair, soap, hot peppers and yes, fox urine, (not sure how they get that!) to deter the rabbits. Nothing worked.

After caring and nurturing plants for 6 to 8 weeks it was very discouraging to plant the seedlings and have them disappear. We did put cages around 30 plants in the yard but it looked like a jail for plants and even then the smallest rabbits snuck through the holes in the fencing to get dinner. Surprisingly, the rabbits do not bother anything in the herb garden.

This winter when the plant catalogs arrived I said to myself that I am not going to let those rabbits win. I am taking back the control of my yard and I will start seeds inside again. I will start my seeds a little earlier so the plants are bigger when planting season arrives. I am hoping that the larges plants will not be as tasty as small young seedlings.

Now that I have taken charge I am happily searching seed catalogs for the perfect color of petunia and the pink gaillardia that matches my Julia Child rose. After picking out a lot of plants I would like to try, I take a good hard look at my yard; what are my soil conditions, how much sun light is there, are there areas that are really dry or wet? Then I check the catalogs symbols or directions for each plants need. I immediately cross off any plant that needs shade or moist soil. The information in the catalog and on that seed packet is there for a purpose, you canít successfully plant Toad Lilies in the sun. To avoid being disappointed that your plant is not looking like the picture in the catalog, follow the directions.

I am back in the game. I have sent my seed order in. Now I have to get ready. My husband has designated the middle shelf on one of his shelving units for my greenhouse. He has hung heavy clear plastic around the shelf to keep in the warmth and moisture. The shelf can hold 4 flats and those flats can hold eight 6 packs, with a 100% success rate you could yield 192 plants. Hang two inexpensive shop lights on chains held up by hooks that hold two 40 watt ordinary fluorescent (or grow-light) tubes each. The lights can be lifted as the plants grow. Set the lights to a timer so that the plants will receive 10 to 12 hours of light. Using a warming mat will speed up germination.

As seed packets arrive in your mailbox check the packet for specific timing for planting according to where you live. Count backwards on the calendar for the last frost date in your region. Some plants need to be started 6 to 8 weeks before the suggested planting time in your area. Now itís time to plant. Read the planting directions carefully. One year I was in a hurry and did not read the directions and the seeds were not germinating. I went back and read the directions and saw that the seeds were to be stored in the refrigerator before being planted.

I use a seed starting soil that can be found in any garden center. Some seeds need to be covered with the soil; others require exposure to the light. Some seeds need to be in the dark but warm, some need to be roughed up with sand paper. I like to use flats that come with their own 6 packs and clear plastic cover. I reuse them soaking them with bleach and rinsing thoroughly before each growing season. My sister-in-law uses cardboard milk cartons cut in half with great success. Lightly water your seedlings; I use a spray bottle to lightly mist the tray. If your flat came with a lid use that if not wrap them with plastic wrap. Once seedlings appear remove any plastic covers to avoid damping off. Moisten plant medium when it begins to dry out.

Donít forget to label your flat or 6 pack. One year I had this elaborate system using different colored nail polish on each 6 pack for each different plant, I somehow lost my key for this system and I had a mess!

Raise the fluorescent lights periodically so they are always 2" above the growing plants, if possible have a small fan blowing gently across the plants to help strengthen the stems. If a fan is not available gently brush the tops of the seedlings every time you water.

As the outdoor temperatures warm I bring the flats outside and put them on the picnic table high enough that a wandering rabbit will be unable to reach. I leave them there for several hours so the plants can adjust to the warmer temperatures. Bring them in at night till it is warm enough for planting.

Good luck planting. And may your garden be rabbit free.

Here is a list of plants rabbits do not like (unless they are really, really hungry):

  • Salvia
  • Veronica
  • Peony
  • Daylily
  • Siberian Iris
  • Allium
  • Bee Balm
  • Lavender
  • Gaillardia

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