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In this monthly series, I’ll be offering up tips and tricks to help you start, develop and maintain a flourishing seed-grown garden. We’ll look at materials, tools and seeds as well as timely tips for managing your plants once those seeds begin to grow. From flowers to food crops, look to this series for seedy solutions.
Since we’re launching at the start of the year – when the Northern Hemisphere is wintery – we’ll begin by looking at the tools and materials you’ll want to start seeds indoors. By encouraging your seeds to germinate early and put on a bit of growth despite winter’s dark, cold days, you may find that your garden flowers and produces food earlier, more successfully and longer than it would otherwise. While some gardeners have good luck sowing seeds into any old dirt-filled pot placed in a bright window, many find that a few more tools really get those early seeds going stronger and faster.
Here’s what you’ll need and why:
• Seeds: At risk of stating the obvious, I remind you that seeds are a requirement. By winter, most seed catalogs are available and nurseries are beginning to stock up on flower and food seeds. If you plan to try something exotic, be sure to check with your vendor to see if the seed requires stratifying. Some larger seeds and more unusual seeds won’t grow unless they are scratched with sandpaper or pre-treated in some other way to mimic what happens to them in nature.
• Calendar: Keeping a calendar really helps. Begin by noting the date you seeded. Jot down when your seeds germinate. Mark the date you thin seedlings, pot them up and when they go into the garden. Put a big star on the day they bloom or are harvested to eat. Keeping track of these dates will make year-after-year gardening easier and help you grow as a gardener. Plus, if you make a note of when you sow, you can also calculate and mark the date when you expect your crop to come in. Most seed packets will provide “days to crop” to help.
• Starting Pots, Trays and Lids: Seeding into small containers is ideal even if your ultimate crop will need lots of room to grow. As time goes on, you will divide and transplant young seedlings. (I’ll cover that later in this series.) Pop a few ice-pick sized drain holes into small, recycled yogurt containers and fit the tops with rubber-banded plastic wrap to great tiny DIY starter pots. Or try using a cardboard egg carton or even a produce “clam-shell” as your seed starting pot. Otherwise, purchase pre-formed starting trays from your favorite nursery. These kits usually come with a greenhouse dome lid. These clear plastic lids help intensify sunlight and heat, encouraging seeds to germinate and grow rapidly. Keep them closed to trap heat and moisture until the seedlings begin to grow.
• Labels: Be sure to label every pack or tray you seed as you plant. Use a pencil to write the date seeded and name of the crop on a wooden or plastic plant label. Or, make a label of your own by cutting up dairy product cups. By writing in pencil, you will be able to erase and re-use non-disposable plastics year after year.
• Soil: Ideally seeds are started in what are called sterile, “soil-less” potting mixes. These are very lightweight and because they are sterile, they are less likely to promote any of the many diseases that plague young seedlings. Wet them thoroughly before sowing your seeds. Then, keep them consistently moist, but don’t let them sit in standing water or risk losing your young seedlings. In later articles, I’ll cover potting up and when to begin adding fertilizers.
• Lighting: Most winter locations don’t receive enough natural sunlight to provide for the needs of growing seedlings. Supplemental indoor lighting can make all the difference to get your seedlings growing fast. Most nurseries and garden catalogers offer shelve systems with built-in lights specific to this need. Or, mount florescent shop style lights onto an old recycled bookshelf. (Just be sure that you use bulbs appropriate to your lamp and sufficient for growing plants.) Connecting a timer means you can create as much replicated daylight, as you need at any time of day. Ideally, you’ll want to provide your seed trays will 6-8 hours of high-quality, uninterrupted “sunlight” while they grow. The quality of the light is as important as the duration.
• Heat: By planting indoors, you may be providing all the heat your seedlings need. But, by warming the soil a bit more, you may get stronger plants faster. Seed warming mats are available at most nurseries. Or, take advantage of floor furnace vents by positioning tables or shelves holding your seed trays over the vents, ensuring the vents have sufficient air clearance. Always make sure not to block your vents or intake systems and never place anything on or near a flammable heat source.
• Water: Keeping newly seeded soil moist can be tricky especially indoors on dry, winter days. Check your soil moisture once a day, at least. Using a spray bottle mister rather than a watering can is a great way to keep seeded soil and young seedlings watered without causing soil and root disruption.
Once you have all of your gear in hand, you’re ready to get started growing from seed. Set up your light table. Fill up your starter pots; moisten the soil well until it drains. Sow your seeds as deeply as the packet recommends, following up with labels right away. Place your pots over heat and under lights. Cover them with a greenhouse lid. And, depending on what you’ve sown, you’ll probably start seeing young, green growth emerge within a few days or weeks.
Next time in this series: Dividing Seedlings & Potting Up