Get a jump on planting this spring and start your seeds indoors

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By Staff

My love of heirloom vegetables has forced me to hone my skills at seed starting. Fortunately, I can find dozens of heirloom tomato varieties at local nurseries in the spring so I don’t have to turn the walkout basement into a tomato production facility; but there are other plants that I can’t find so easily so I have to start them myself.

Starting seeds indoors, whether in the basement or the greenhouse, is necessary for many crops if you want them to reach maturity in a timely fashion. For some summer crops, which require warm soil temperatures to germinate getting a head start will ensure production in summer; other crops can be directly seeded in the garden. The difference is the number of days it takes for the plant to reach maturity. All of this information is on the seed packet so take a look at the recommendations on the packet.

Other considerations include ideal growing conditions. Brussels sprouts should be started early so you can set them out as plants as soon as possible. The goal is to get an early harvest before our summer temperatures soar.

The tools for starting seeds indoors include shallow containers (or a shallow flat with drainage holes), a sterile growing medium like a 50-50 mix of vermiculite and peat moss, some clear plastic, and a spray bottle. For the second phase you’ll need some small containers and potting soil when the seedlings are ready for their first transplant. I typically use small containers left over from store-bought plants but you can also purchase seed starting kits at garden supply stores.

I use large, shallow flats (such as a flat of pansies bought in the fall) in which to start seeds so I will use this method as the example. Moisten your germinating mix and fill the flat; take a pencil and make several shallow furrows in the mix; drop your seeds in (check planting depth on the seed packet, some seeds need light to germinate so you do not want to cover them with your germinating mixture); gently moisten again with your spray bottle and cover with a plastic hood or homemade tent (if you prefer the homemade version use popsicle sticks to support your tent).

The plastic tent increases the relative humidity and moderates the soil moisture as the seeds germinate. Open the tent daily to see if more moisture is needed, mist accordingly with your spray bottle. Consistency is key for moisture and warmth.

Seeds need varying degrees of warmth to germinate so provide some type of heat source. You don’t want to cook your seeds, just keep them on the warm side. Ideally use a heating pad that is designed for seed starting; otherwise find a warm location under fluorescent lights or in a south-facing window. Don’t put them by the heat register, which is an inconsistent source of warmth and dries out the seedlings.

Light is necessary, too. If you do not have a bright window for your tray then use grow lights. Fluorescent grow lights are ideal because they provide even, overhead light so your seedlings will more likely grow stout and straight. You can adjust the level and duration the lights are on each day which allows for more control.

Once your seedlings emerge remove your plastic covering and begin to water the tray from the bottom to maintain even moisture (not soggy). Once the second set of true leaves form (the shape that you associate with the plant) your adolescent seedlings are ready to be transplanted into their own pot.

Carefully remove the seedlings from the tray and transplant them into small individual pots filled with moistened transplant mix; return them to their light source (if they are in a window give them a quarter turn every day so they grow straight). Continue to water your transplants from the bottom when needed, adding some diluted fish emulsion fertilizer once a week.

Once the outdoor conditions are right for your crop take some time to acclimate your plants to the outdoors. Put them outside in the shade, first, gradually moving them into the sunlight; they be ready to plant in the garden in about a week.