Most people don't know how easy it is to get a head start on their vegetable garden by starting seeds indoors. Not only does it save money, but you can get a much wider variety of seeds than you will find as plants. The best part about starting seeds indoors comes from an earlier harvest and greater yield. It can seem daunting, but with these tips and tricks, you'll be armed with seedlings ready to go in the ground as soon as the last frost date has passed (in our area, that is around April 15th). Happy gardening!
- Start With the Container - In addition to your seed packets, you'll need small containers, no more than 3 - 4 inches across. You can use the small pots last year's plants came in, yogurt cups or really any small container with drain holes. Be sure to sterilize whatever containers you pick with a bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) to avoid disease and fungus. You also need a large tray in which to place the pots as you want to water the seedlings from below by filling the tray and letting the water soak up into the pots. Watering from the top can lead to disease so the tray is an important piece.
- Prep the Soil - The best medium for growing delicate seedlings is a light, fluffy and sterile mix that is specifically for starting seeds. Fertilizer isn't important at this stage as the seeds themselves contain the nutrients the seedling will need until it is time to plant it in the ground.
- Light it Up - Seedlings need about 16 hours of light a day and are very sensitive to heat so the best light source for your starts are fluorescent bulbs. A shop light with two fluorescents - one cool white tube and one red light tube are a great combination - works great. The light should be kept 3-4 inches above the seedlings so they don't get tall and spindly so hang the shop light on chains with S-hooks to allow easy maneuverability.
- Warmth & Water - During germination (before the seeds sprout), light warmth is needed. Special heating mats are sold for this purpose, but the effect can be achieved on top of the refrigerator or dryer. Once the seeds sprout, room temperature is fine. You want to keep the soil moist - but not soaked. A cover over the tray can help keep the humidity at a nice level for the seedlings but make sure there is adequate air movement, again to avoid fungal growth. And as discussed above, always water from the bottom, not the top so as to reduce the chance for disease to take over the delicate sprouts.
- Introduce to the Outside Slowly - Once the seedlings are ready for their debut outside, implement a process called "hardening off". Take the trays of starts outside on a nice, sunny day and place them in a shady spot that is somewhat protected from heavy wind and leave them out there for just a few hours before bringing them back inside. Do this for a few days, slowly increasing the amount of time they spend outside as well as the amount of direct sunlight they're exposed to. This acclimates the seedlings to the outdoors and the conditions they'll soon be living in. Once the last chance of frost has passed and the soil is a balmy 70 degrees, plant your little beauties and garden away!