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Home > Begonian > Volume 67 (November/December 2000, pages 219 - 220)

Startin' Out
by Jim Hannah

Transplanting begonia seedlings from their original germination containers to new 'quarters' is a simple process. It can begin as soon as the wee little guys show their first set of true leaves. These are the second pair to appear. When they are at least as large as the original pair, the plants are far enough along to withstand the move. The key is to keep transplanting shock to a minimum. A bit of preparation helps here.

The first step is to make sure you have the things you'll need on hand. These are some planting medium (soil), pots or containers, identification markers and some sort of a transplanting tool to help you handle the little rascals. A trip to the supermarket, the home furnishings section of a discount store, a stationery store, and a stamp dealer can be useful here.

Let's start with the soil. Any good potting soil will do just fine. A look through the Begonian will provide you with the names of some suppliers, or you can go to your local garden center. If you're adventuresome, you can mix your own. We do. We use a mix called 1:1:1. That's one part sphagnum peat moss (Canadian, not Michigan), one part vermiculite, and one part perlite. It's best to add some ground limestone to control the acidity. A good starting mix is a one pound coffee can each of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Then add 2 to 3 tablespoons of ground limestone. Mix thoroughly, and water to moisten and you're ready to go. It's best to do this outside -- peat moss can produce a lot of dust in the air. If you're tempted to use your own garden soil, I beg you to resist. Garden soils don't always work out well as potting mixes, even though they may grow some absolutely super tomatoes.

Pots and containers are next on the list. It's important for any pot or container to have a drainage hole at the bottom. It's also important for the container to be tall enough. The mix in a very shallow container can become waterlogged if you don't control the watering very, very carefully. This condition can occur in shallow containers even if there's a drainage hole and it will quickly wipe out seedlings. Containers that are too shallow can also dry out very quickly with results that are just as bad. If you want a lot of inexpensive containers in a hurry, the plastic cups sold in packs of 50 in the supermarket will serve. Just make drainage holes on the bottom edge. Don't make the hole in the bottom itself -- when the cup is standing on a flat surface, there's no way for the water to run out.

Markers are helpful if you are going to grow several different begonias. A stationery store will carry permanent marking pens, sometimes called laundry markers. The ink is really permanent. We use them to mark the tags for our water lilies. The tags are a foot underwater and remain legible for years. If you're using plastic containers, you can mark directly on them.

The markers themselves can be the ones sold in garden centers or you can become a bit more inventive. Don't use wooden popsicle sticks or tongue depressors, though. The wood will rot out in a short while. If you want a lot of tags for a true bargain price, look around the home furnishings section of a discount store for a really cheap plastic Venetian blind. You may be able to get one for as little as $3. The slats can be cut into tags with scissors. They take and retain markings just fine. We use them in our ponds. The cords can be used to tie up old newspapers for disposal -- we try not to waste anything!

That brings us to tools. Some writers suggest using a spoon handle or a popsicle stick to lift the seedlings out. We've found that these are pretty clumsy for small seedlings, especially if they're growing close together. If you can, go to a stamp dealer's store or get hold of a stamp collector supplies catalog. We've found that stamp tongs are just the thing for lifting small seedlings with minimal damage. The 'spade tip' style is by far the best. You can push them down on both sides of a seedling and lift out a neat little 'plug'.

A few more comments will wrap things up. Your seedlings have been growing in a closed container at 100% humidity. If you transplant them, don't put the open container in a low humidity location. The seedlings may not be able to adapt quickly enough and will wilt and die. Rather, put the containers in a high humidity location or in a clear plastic bag open at the top. As time goes on, you can simply adapt the plants to lower humidity.

Finally, the seedlings will be very small at the 4 leaf stage. There's nothing which says they must be transplanted one to a container. You can transplant several to a single container and then move them on to their own individual containers once they've grown larger.

Next time the topic will be simple vegetative propagation, or how to turn one plant into several. See you then.

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