Many things are more expensive these days, and store-bought veggie and flower plants are no exception. Starting your own indoors is not that difficult. Here are nine important things to know before you begin.
Determine which seeds require an early start indoors in your area and which will do just as well direct-seeded outside in your garden. In the northeast, I start broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, celery, tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, cosmos, marigolds, and nasturtiums inside. Check the seed packet to find out how many weeks of growth each one requires before planting out. Count backward from the set-out date to determine the seed-starting date. Don’t forget to allow germination time, also specified on the seed packet.
Containers for seed-starting can be anything from sophisticated rigs complete with watering reservoirs and built-in bottom heat to plastic yogurt cups. To save space, I’ve started using the clear plastic containers that my salad greens come in. Depending on the number of varieties of a particular veggie you are growing, use either the 5oz. or 11oz. size. For example, I start six different types of tomatoes so I use the larger container and grow them all in one, each variety in its own marked row, the rows separated by leftover pieces of plastic window blinds. I like the fact that these containers come complete with lids – great for retaining moisture during the germination period.
The ideal seed-starting medium is a soilless potting mix. My favorite is Pro-Mix. This will help avoid diseases and fungi prevalent in garden soil. For starting larger seeds such as winter squash and melons I use half compost and half Pro-Mix in a four-inch pot so enough food will be available to grow strong specimens to the planting-out stage without re-potting.
Warmth for germination is essential. I meet this need simply by placing my containers on top of my fridge or upright freezer. Check daily to see if any seedlings are poking up. Move immediately to a well-lit location.
Light needs of seedlings are met easily in a greenhouse or south-facing window. Fluorescent light stands can give you more control over the light plants receive and are a worthwhile investment if you plan to garden for a number of years. Do not keep your seedling containers covered with clear plastic in direct sunlight or they will cook!
Keep seedlings evenly moist, but do not over-water to avoid damping-off and other plant problems. If mold occurs on the soil surface, steep a crushed clove of garlic in a cup of just-boiled water for ten minutes, cool, strain and spray. No harm will come to the seedlings, but the mold will be eliminated.
The time to transplant to larger containers is when the seedlings have one to two sets of true leaves. I find the smaller they are, the easier they are to transplant. The size container I use depends on the veggie. Plants such as broccoli and cauliflower that will go outside in four to five weeks at a relatively small size can be transplanted into plastic four or six packs. Veggies that need to spend more time indoors like tomatoes and peppers are transplanted directly into four-inch pots or recycled quart yogurt containers with holes punched in the bottom.
Hardening-off is a crucial step that cannot be skipped. It simply means putting your seedlings outdoors in the sun and gentle breeze (not brisk wind) a few hours a day, gradually increasing the time outside for a week to ten days before planting out in the garden. Doing this will ensure hardy plants capable of surviving in the real world.
In cooler climes plant out in the garden earlier than your neighbors by employing a few tricks. First, heat up the soil by laying down plastic two to four weeks before you want to put your plants out. Clear plastic will heat the ground faster but will allow weeds to grow. Black plastic will take a little longer but blocks light so weeds don’t have a chance to sprout. A product called Wall-O-Water, available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds is perfect for giving heat-loving veggies like tomatoes and peppers a jump start in colder areas. Another favorite season extender of mine is floating row cover. Check out Pinetree Garden Seeds for this versatile product. It can be used for protection against early and late frosts and insect predation.
Starting your own plants indoors will not only give you a jump on the season and save you money, but it allows you to choose from the thousands of wonderful veggie and flower varieties available in the gardening world. So order your seeds and start growing!