It’s slightly more complicated than your fourth grade biology project, but a whole lot more rewarding: starting your own garden plants from seed indoors. It’s a great way to grow unusual varieties, and it’s fun.
“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the seeds sprout,” says Tina Beneman, veteran gardener and former host of The Good Earth Garden on MPT. “Especially when everything outside is dormant and gray.”
Though garden centers are rapidly expanding their plant varieties, few will offer flats of things like fluted Costoluto Genovese tomato or fish pepper, a Thomas Jefferson favorite.
“When you get the seed and start plants yourself, you can get exactly the varieties that you want,” says Mark Willis, vegetable seed production manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY.
Many annuals need a jump-start on the season here to reach full production before frost. Start peppers, which are slow to germinate and grow indoors, 10-12 weeks from when you plan to set them outside in about mid-May, followed by eggplant and finally tomatoes, which need only six weeks or so prior to putting them in the ground.
In starting seeds indoors, the two biggest considerations are warmth and light. Even if you have a south-facing window, as I did in the kitchen where I started my plants for years, the sun’s angle and the number of daylight hours in February and March rarely offer enough full spectrum light to seedlings. Without supplemental light of some kind they grow gasping and leggy and slightly anemic.
“You have to have a shop light if you want to be successful,” says Jon Traunfeld, Director of University of Maryland Master Gardener program and Extension specialist.
“I use cool white tubes, but it’s probably better to use one cool and one warm bulb for additional heat.”
There are some snazzy seed-starting stands available that can be had for fairly snazzy price tags. But you can also make your own. Plans and suggestions abound online.
“You can make one out of PVC pipe or lumber, hang shop lights and grow hundreds of plants,” says Traunfeld, who uses a stand he built himself that has six lights. My kitchen set-up – not pretty, but effective – consisted of four screw eyes in the kitchen ceiling. From them, I strung a pair of shop lights and lowered and raised the lights to keep them about three inches above the plants as they grew.
“The other thing I learned over the years,” Traunfeld says, “is most people do this in the basement and spend money on heating mats. But the cheapest way to raise the temperature to what they need [soil temp around 70F] is to cover your light stand with 6 ml clear plastic. It keeps humidity in and raises temps about 6-7 degrees, so things germinate and grow faster.”
Also, if the plants are where you see them often, you reap the pleasure of watching them grow more frequently than if they were tucked away in the basement.
You can start seeds in egg crates, in yogurt cups with drain holes, in Dixie cups (with drain holes) and in the sterilized plastic flats in which you bought last year’s plants. Once you’ve chosen a container, choose a planting medium. Many different kinds are available, some with nutrients in them that will gently fertilizer the growing seedlings. Traunfeld, who adds compost to his, suggests a soil-less medium. Don’t dig up garden soil, which is A) really cold and hard right now, and B) may contain microbes, fungus, and other things you don’t want for your leafy little babies. Instead, get a medium that has coir, perlite, or vermiculite, which offers superb drainage.
“When go you looking for a medium, pick up the different bags and see what they weigh. Avoid the heavy ones,” Traunfeld advises.
Finally, don’t over-water. Once the seedlings have reached about an inch and a half tall, which means their roots are about an inch long, soak them every couple-three days.
“Let the top dry out some,” Traunfeld says, “so you don’t have damping off.” Damping off is a fungus that kills seedlings and is encouraged by too much water.
It’s also a good idea to gently brush your hand over the seedlings periodically, once they reach three inches tall or so. It helps them to strengthen their stems, something the wind does for them naturally.
“I’ve learned a lot about plants just by starting seed indoors and watching them grow,” says Tina Beneman. “You get an intuitive understanding about what they need. And you don’t have to contend with rabbits and deer and other attackers – at least until you put them in the ground!”