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Starting seeds indoors isn’t hard, it’s keeping them alive that can be challenging. You can save a lot of money by growing plants from seeds, but only if they live and turn into robust plants. Plants started indoors, and then transplanted outdoors as larger plants, may flower sooner, and produce an earlier harvest, than those started directly outdoors.
Starting seeds is not complicated or difficult, if you understand the process. Following the steps below will help you begin the process and have good success with your garden this year.
Sow seeds in a shallow seed starting tray until they sprout (you can also use old yogurt containers):
- Sprinkle seeds on planting medium and press ¼ inch down into soil with a pencil or pen.
- Firm the soil gently to be sure that the seeds have good contact.
- Use a spray bottle to water the seeds in with a fine mist. Cover containers to trap humidity.
- When they are 1” to 2” tall, gently move the small plants into larger containers.
Seedlings need lots of light or they will become stalky, and feeble. A very sunny, south-facing window will do. However, most gardeners prefer to use artificial lights, so the plants can get enough rays. If you do use a sunny windowsill to grow your seedlings, rotate the plants every few days so they don’t have to reach for the light. You can buy specially-made plant light kits, or make one yourself. The crucial thing is to make the light fixture so you can raise and lower it. You must keep the lights just 3 to 4 inches above the plants as they grow. That’s why incandescent light bulbs won’t work; if they are close enough to give a plant a useful amount of light, their heat will kill it. Fluorescent bulbs give more light and stay cool. Don’t forget to turn the lights off for 8 hours/day. Plants need rest.
Seed-starting happens in two stages: germination and growing.
- Germination is the sprouting stage, when the embryo of the plant emerges from the seed. You don’t need light at this stage, but you do need consistent warmth (not harsh heat). Seeds do not germinate well when the soil temperature varies too much. Many warm weather plants, like impatiens, peppers and tomatoes, need 70° to 80° soil temperature to start germinating. At 60° you may get 50% germination, while at 80° you may get 85% germination. You can provide the heat by setting the containers on top of a refrigerator, or water heater
Plants need a consistent source of water; they do not like a constant source of water. Many more plants die from too much water than from too little water. Sow the seeds in pre-moistened seed starting mix. Cover the containers to hold in humidity while the seeds germinate. Once they sprout, uncover the containers and water them from the bottom, by adding water into the tray. Do not water trays from the top; that stimulates diseases.
Do not fertilize new seedlings until the true leaves form. Seedlings have enough nutrients, in its seed, until it starts forming true leaves. Fertilize once a week, because seed starting mixes do not contain any added nutrients. Use a good liquid fertilizer, such as Fertilome Blooming and Rooting Fertilizer, 20-20-20 Plant Food.
‘Hardening Off’ Tender Plants
Nothing is worse than spending a lot of effort starting your seeds early, and then watch them die as soon as you plant them outside. Before planting your seedlings outside into the cold, windy garden, you should ‘Harden Them Off.’ Many new gardeners don’t know what “hardening off” means. Hardening off means that you need to acclimate your plants from indoor temperatures, to the outdoor growing conditions. Start by allowing your plants to dry out between watering to toughen them up. Then start taking them outside in semi shade for an hour or two. Increase the time outside more each day for about 2 weeks. Now you’re ready to plant.
After planting, be aware of the possibility of frost, and be prepared to protect tender transplants. Use frost blankets, or a ‘wall of water,’ until the weather is safe. Putting a 5 gallon bucket over the plants is a quick and easy way to protect them from both sunburn, and from a very mild frost. The last average frost in our area is May 15, but even then you never know.
Gardeners are always eager to plant early, and to get a jump on spring. However, many carefully nurtured tomato plants have been killed by frost, or slowed down and stunted by cold weather and cold soil.
* Protect your investment by planting outside ‘a little later’, rather than ‘a little too early’.