Here in Central Ohio, we’re just starting to get little hints of Spring, but the weather is still temperamental enough that we’re looking at about another six weeks until we can put certain vegetables in the ground.
In the meantime, however, we can get a jump start on our gardens by starting seeds. What is seed starting? It’s simply the practice of growing seeds indoors in small portions of soil and giving them a few extra weeks to get established while the outdoor soil is still cold.
Why start seeds? First, getting your plants started a few weeks early will allow for well-established young starters that will produce earlier and give you a longer harvest season. Second, there’s a spectacular variety of seeds available for purchase, and a much smaller variety of started plants. With a few dollars investment, you can try several varieties of heirloom tomatoes (and share extra seeds with friends).
What do you need and how do you get started?
1. Containers. These can be trays that are store-bought, small pots or cups, (any thing that holds a few inches of soil will work, as long as you punch drainage holes in the bottom) just be sure to sterilize previously used containers to avoid spreading bacteria or diseases to your seeds. (Dip container in 9 parts water to 1 part bleach, then rinse well.)
2. Seeds. Tomatoes, peppers, melons, brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggplant, and herbs are all great choices for starting indoors since they don’t mind having their roots disturbed.
3. Soil. A good potting mix is essential. Garden soil is bad for seeds because it is too dense, and might not be pasteurized to kill off disease and weed seeds. Potting soil (marked for seed starting) is quick and easy, but you can also make your own mix of 2 parts peat moss, 1 part vermiculite, 1 part perlite, plus 2 tablespoons superphosphate and 1 tsp 5-10-5 fertilizer per gallon of potting mix.
4. Heat & Light. Seeds need warmth to germinate. The top of the refrigerator is a great starting place, once they sprout, you can move them to a sunny window.
PLANTING To calculate the date you should start seeds, take the frost free date for our region–May 1st–and referencing the back of the seed packet, count backward the number of days it will take for seedlings to be moved outdoors.
Fill containers with pre-moistened mix to about 1/4″ below the top (you can mist your soil with a spray bottle or water from the bottom). Make furrows using your finger or a pencil eraser, spacing the seeds according to the packet. Lightly cover the seeds with soil, mist with water and cover the container with a plastic bag or dome…it keeps the moisture from evaporating and keeps the seeds warm.
As mentioned above, place the seeds in a warm place out of direct sun. Once the seedlings emerge (YAY!) remove the plastic and place the containers in a sunny spot with a slightly cooler temperature (60-75 degrees). This will help them grow slowly enough to develop sturdy stalks. Rotate the container 1/4 turn every day to make sure the seedlings get even light.
Keep the soil moist, but not soaking, by setting the container in shallow water just until it feels moist, then allow it to drain. As the seedlings get stronger, you can water from the top with a watering can.
THINING When the seedlings have three leaves, it’s time to thin them and move them to larger containers. To thin plants, trim weaker looking plants at soil level with scissors. If you pull out the plants, you risk disrupting the roots of the other plants.
To move seedlings, fill the larger container (a 4″ pot works well) with premoistened soil mix. Use the blade of a table or butter knife to lift the seedling out of the soil, holding the plant by the leaves, not the stems. (Leaves grow back, stems won’t.) Set the plants slightly deeper than they were before, firm up the soil, and water well, but gently. Keep them out of direct sunlight for a day or so to recover.
OUTDOOR PLANTING It’s important to acclimate your starters before planting them outside. Start by setting them outside during the warmest part of the day for an hour, protected from the wind and direct sun. Gradually increase the amount of time and light they receive and begin going longer between watering. Transplant them into your garden on a cloudy, calm day, or in the evening–this will give them a chance to recover from the stress of the transplant. Make sure your garden soil is loose and moist, and water well after planting.
With that, you’re on your way to fantastic vegetables!
(Want more tips and some trouble shooting info? Click here.)