Now’s the perfect time to think about what seeds you’d like to start indoors for spring planting. Starting your own seeds can save you big bucks—plus, by doing so you won’t be limited to the ho-hum variety selections sold in most garden centers. Follow these tips and you will be on your way to growing healthy, strong seedlings.
1. Sow Crops That Transplant Well
Heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers and melons are great to start indoors. (If you have a short growing season, it’s the only way to get mature produce from these crops.) Some cool-weather crops, such as broccoli, also benefit from an indoor start so they have time to mature outdoors in spring or fall, before midsummer heat or winter freezes set in. However, not every crop is a good candidate for indoor seed starting: Beans, peas and root crops should be sown directly in the garden because they don’t transplant well.
2. Start with High-Quality Seeds
Start with high-quality seeds and varieties suited to your region’s conditions. Buy from reputable suppliers who do their own germination tests and, preferably, their own variety trials. Quality seeds sprout faster and at a higher rate, they grow into stronger seedlings, and they produce more. Try getting seeds well-adapted to your region from local seed swaps, or you can buy from regional suppliers. Check out Best Vegetable Seed Companies, an article based on a survey of gardeners all accross the coutry, for some ideas.
3. Plan Your Timing
Transplants held indoors too long can become root-bound and weak — a setback that makes plants more susceptible to problems outdoors. However, starting seeds too late can mean you miss the optimum growing window. To find out when to start seeds of specific crops in your area, check out these What to Plant Now pages and click on your region.
4. Use a Good Planting Mix
It’s important to use a loose, well-drained mix for indoor seed starting. Commercial peat-based mixes are widely available in garden centers and hardware stores, but peat moss is virtually nonrenewable because of its extremely slow growth rate and because harvesting it destroys the wildlife habitat provided by the peat bogs. You may be able to find seed-starting mixes that contain coir, a good alternative, instead of peat. To supply nutrients for the seedlings, the mix should include quality, screened compost and an organic fertilizer blend.
5. Feed and Water Wisely
Several hours before you fill your containers with seed-starting mix, put the mix in a bucket and stir in enough water to moisten it uniformly. (This is much easier than watering the mix after you sow, and it prevents you from dislodging newly sown seeds.) Fill your containers with the pre-moistened mix, then plant two or three seeds per cell at the depth recommended on the seed packet. Cover the containers with plastic wrap or a plastic dome if you have one — the plastic will hold just enough moisture to encourage germination. Remove the plastic as soon as sprouts emerge. Water seedlings gently when the soil feels dry to the touch, either with a mister or by filling the tray below the cells with water. If your starting mix didn’t contain an organic fertilizer blend, feed seedlings a diluted, liquid organic fertilizer (such as fish emulsion) when they form their first true leaves. For more on liquid fertilizers, see Free, Homemade Liquid Fertilizers.
6. Use the Right Lights
Seedlings need brighter light than the average home can provide in late winter. You could buy grow lights for your seedlings, but standard fluorescent lights will do just fine. Keep the lights suspended an inch or less above the tops of seedlings, raising the lights (or lowering the containers) to maintain that distance as seedlings grow. Seedlings do best with 14 to 18 hours of light per day. For directions on building a cool seed-starting setup, check out Make a Multipurpose Seed-Starting Bookcase.
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