Winter has the land in its grips, but for gardeners who can’t wait for the spring season, it will soon be time to get growing by starting seeds indoors.
Unfortunately, many gardeners consider sprouting seeds to be an enigmatic art. Success seems to come to only veteran growers with many years of try, try, trying under their belts.
Speaking of dirt, that is where you should begin. For suitable water retention without compaction, use a quality soilless potting mix. In addition, since the new roots are going to be fragile, it is best to put the seeds in biodegradable pots that can be planted directly into the soil. Peat pots have been standard for many gardeners, but also consider a new product, CowPots (www.cowpots.com), which are soil-enriching, organic containers made from composted cow manure.
After planting the seeds to their correct depth, the soil should be lightly watered (not drowned!), and the pots covered in clear plastic to prevent moisture loss. Even with this evaporation preventative in place, you should still check the pots every day or two to make sure they don’t dry out. This is very important. One bout of forgetfulness that deprives the seeds of moisture could spell disaster for your indoor planting bed.
Heat is also a necessity for germinating seeds of summer flowers and vegetables. Like their fair-weather parents, these seeds need warmth to properly develop.
The source of heat doesn’t necessarily have to come from the sun. If you don’t have a sunny windowsill available, a seedling heat mat (sold at many garden shops) will provide the proper ground temperature. There are, however, cheaper alternatives: the top of your water heater or even refrigerator could do quite nicely as well if they feel slightly warm to the touch.
It usually doesn’t matter if your indoor source of constant heat is not in a well lit location. For germination purposes, heat is more important than light for most seeds. After the seeds have sprouted, then light becomes essential.
When the seeds sprout, remove the clear plastic covering and let the sun shine in—and then some. A sunny room or window with a southern exposure is ideal in the winter, but for stronger plants, add a supplemental grow light or two. Fluorescent grow lights can be expensive, but I have had success by combining a “warm” colored fluorescent tube with a “cool” one. This setup doesn’t exactly reproduce the sun’s light spectrum, but for more light to strengthen young seedlings, it will work.
Begin fertilizing after the seeds sprout their first two leaves. To prevent the plants from becoming spindly “over achievers” as well as to avoid tender roots from being chemically burned, use a diluted water-soluble fertilizer. This can be applied once a week as part of the regular watering schedule.
These starter tips are general guidelines. To fine-tune this wintry adventure in starting plants, always read the instructions on the back of the seed packets first. This information will provide the proper time for planting outdoors, which should be six to eight weeks after you start your seeds. In addition, the packet info will sometimes reveal that the seeds are stubborn starters and should be soaked in water first, or that, unlike most seeds, they need light in order to sprout.
As you can see—starting plants from seeds is not THAT hard. So, gardeners, search those catalogs, head to your garden center and start your seeds!
L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Want to ask L.A. a question about your garden? Visit his website at southeastgardening.com