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It's an inexpensive project, lots of fun for the whole family and the varieties of seed available from multiple sources far exceeds what you can find locally.
This is especially true when it comes to growing heirloom varieties (commonly described as seeds passed down from generations for over 50 years) or Certified Organic seeds (which are free of synthetic inputs from parent plants or genetic modification). Retail nurseries and garden centers rarely have the shelf space or even demand for anything but the most common varieties. Most of the time, these are hybrid plants with disease resistant traits. Although that might sound appealing, there are tradeoffs to settling for the most common plant choices.
With an ever-decreasing supply of heritage seed varieties, perpetuating their existence and saving seeds from the harvest is more important than ever. Their continued availability along with the important role these varieties play in preserving biodiversity depends on it!
Similarly, Certified Organic seeds are created from parent plants that are free of synthetic chemicals and without genetic modification. There are many questions as to the benefits of GMO's and even more unanswered questions as to the consequences of their modification. The impact to our health and the health of the planet won’t be fully understood for years. But growing and preserving seeds of non-manipulated plants is becoming increasingly critical.
Fortunately, the process for starting these seeds is the same as any other. Just be sure of the original source or their labeling if this is important to you too. You can find many sources for heirloom or certified organic seeds through an online search.
It usually takes six to eight weeks for plants started from seed to be ready for outdoor planting. When you start seeds indoors, you have better control over the environment and can time your plantings to ensure they are not subjected to freezing conditions, which would kill tender seedlings.
Seed trays may be purchased but common household items are just as effective, such as small cups or bowls. I like the plastic containers that you get at the grocery store or from a take-out restaurant. They have a clear plastic lid, perfect for watching your progress and keeping moisture in until the seeds germinate.
When planting, use a seed starting mix and it will be specifically labeled this way. These mixes are lightweight and sterile and specifically designed for optimal seed germinating conditions. They are usually made up of a combination of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite. Avoid using garden soil. It is too heavy for tender seedlings, plus soil from the garden contains disease pathogens, which can kill your plants.
When sowing seeds, I prefer to premoisten the mix so the seeds are not disturbed by water after planting. It should be about the dampness of a wet sponge. Assuming the container or tray stays covered, the mix should hold all the moisture the seeds need to germinate. However, not all seeds have the same germination requirements, so it’s best to refer to instructions on the seed packet or elsewhere for specific details.
Next, cover the trays with a plastic lid that allows light through but holds moisture in. Plastic bags work well for smaller containers. With adequate moisture, condensation will develop inside this tent or cover.
Keep an eye on the seeds daily. As soon as you notice them sprouting, remove the cover. Too much trapped moisture could cause plants to rot. Placing a small fan nearby to keep air moving across the soil will help keep new seedlings disease-free.
Supplemental lighting is important for best growth once the seeds germinate. A simple shop light consisting of two 40-watt florescent bulbs is perfect and very inexpensive. Place your tray or containers under the lights and positioned just above the plant leaves, keeping it to within an inch or two from the tops of your sprouts. The lights should stay on for about 16 hours each day.
Lastly, continue to add water as needed to keep the soil moist but not wet. Once the cover has been removed, soil will tend to dry out more quickly. In about six weeks, the seedlings will be ready to transition into the garden.
Starting seeds indoors is just one more element of gardening that I find addictive and a great activity when not much else is going on in the garden. As a bonus, your seedlings will reward you with months of vivid colors, fresh vegetables and herbs, plus the satisfaction of knowing you had a hand in making it happen.