Sonoma County Garden Doctors: Coaxing seeds to germinate, using newspaper to suppress weeds

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Toni S. of Windsor asks: I have tried starting seeds indoors several times, but always have a problem with keeping the soil just moist enough to encourage the seeds to germinate. The soil is either too dry or too wet and therefore, I get poor germination. I buy new seed packets every year. Do you have any ideas as to how I can keep the soil consistently moist for better germination results?

You can cover your seed trays with a clear plastic wrap that will create a mini greenhouse effect to hold in the moisture the seeds need to germinate. It also helps in cutting back on your watering so often, which is especially helpful if you’re prone to forget.

After you’ve sown the seeds, give them a good drink of water. Then cover the tray with the plastic wrap. It’s not necessary to tuck the plastic under. Just drape it over the top of the tray.

After a day or two you will see condensation forming on the underside of the plastic. So far, so good. Keep an eye on when the seeds start to germinate.

Once the seeds start sprouting, remove the plastic, as too much moisture along with no air circulation, can promote disease.

Also, be sure that where you are starting your seeds, the soil is at the required temperature for the specific seeds you’re trying to germinate. Eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes need a soil temperature of at least 75 degrees. If it’s much cooler, germination will be poor. You could use a heating mat, available at many nurseries, to help keep the soil warm.

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Janice N. of Santa Rosa asks: Can I use newspaper in my garden to help control weeds? I’ve heard of people using cardboard. What about newspaper?

Many gardeners like to use newspaper, as well as cardboard, to help suppress and discourage weeds from coming up where they are not wanted, especially for young weeds just starting to germinate. The thicker the layers of newspaper, the better it will work. You can cover the newspaper with organic matter such as compost or wood chips to hold it in place as it decomposes. By the time it does the weeds will have been choked off and smothered. By the end of the growing season, the newspaper and dead weeds will have decomposed and turned into compost. Don’t use colored newspaper, such as advertising circulars. They may contain chemicals that are bad for the garden.

If you have a lot of existing weeds that you are having trouble controlling you might want to consider using cardboard instead of newspaper. It will last longer and usually is more effective for larger-sized weeds, especially perennial weeds.

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Sam Y. of Santa Rosa asks: We just moved into this house that has a few ornamental grasses in the front yard. They look dead, but they’re not. I dug around them and the roots look pretty good. When I pulled on them they’re anchored in the ground. I assume they die back in the winter. Am I supposed to cut off all the dead leaves and stalks now?

There are evergreen and deciduous types of grasses. You have the deciduous type, which means they die back in the winter. Yes you should prune them back to within a couple of inches from the ground so that the new shoots can come up easily. During the winter, the dead leaves and stalks provide some protection for the crown, but as spring approaches, they’re only in the way. Besides, if you didn’t prune off the dead foliage, the plants will not look their best, as they’ll be new, lush foliage, intermingled with the dead foliage, making them unattractive.

Dana Lozano and Gwen Kilchherr are garden consultants. Send your gardening questions to The Garden Doctors, at pdgardendoctor@gmail.com. The Garden Doctors can answer questions only through their column, which appears twice a month in the newspaper and online at pressdemocrat.com.

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