Now that the days are slowly starting to get longer, I’m yearning for spring. I’m trying to find more winter hobbies, but I really don’t like the cold. And while I like organizing my house, office, car, etc as a way to get a good start to the new year, my fascination with this only lasts so long.
I find myself looking around my property and thinking about gardening. It’s much too cold here in SE PA to do much of anything outside, so what’s a gardener to do?
Well, garden planning is a great winter indoor activity. And this is a great time to plan our your beds and containers and order seeds to so that you can start growing plants indoors. If you’ve subscribed to any seed and plant catalogs, the good news is they start coming now.
As with any other aspect of gardening that I’ve covered, if you are new to seed starting, it’s always good to start small. While the beautiful pictures in the catalogs are enticing and may make you want to order every variety you find, please resist the temptation.
Start with only a few varieties that are easy to cultivate. By keeping things simple, you will have the greatest success. This will give you a chance to really learn the techniques and pitfalls and tune your setup accordingly.
But what if you have grand plans for a huge garden? Try starting a few things from seed and buy the rest of your plants from a local greenhouse. You can expand your seed starting efforts each year as you gain more experience.
So how do you get started?
Make a Plan
The first step is to have a plan for your garden. Know what you are going to plant and why. I discuss these first steps in my article 5 Tips for Easy and Successful Garden Planning.
After you decide what you are going to plant, choose which plants you’re going to grow from seed and either order the seeds from a catalog or buy the seeds at your local garden center.
Buying from a local center is a great idea because the staff generally knows which varieties will do well in your area.
Get the Timing Right
Your main goal with planting seeds is to get the seedlings or plants ready to be transplanted outside once the weather is accommodating. Read your seed packet to make sure you know when you should start planting them inside and when they should be moved outside. This will differ depending on the area (gardening zone) you live in. Make a list of planting dates for each of the seeds you’ve purchase.
A typical rule of thumb is to start seeding 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Timing is important, but don’t fret if you start a little early. Keep your plants’ soil slightly moist and keep them warm and they will do just fine until it’s time for them to join the outside world.
Some plants such as beans and squash grow very fast, so there is no need to start them indoors. Read the package of seeds carefully to know which ones to start and which say direct sow which means to plant them directly outside.
Use the Right Containers
From commercially available plastic grow trays to biodegradable plant starting pots, the choices and recommendations for seed starting containers are endless. The right containers are very important as you don't want them to be too big or too small. In general, choose a container that is at least 2-3 inches deep and about as wide. This will give you enough room to start your seeds without the worry of planting them too deep or too shallow.
Make sure to have a hole in the bottom for drainage. This is important to prevent over watering and root rot. If your home tends to be dry, commercially available seed starting containers are a great idea as many have lids to help maintain humidity around the new plants.
Get the Right Soil
It’s best to start with a fresh, sterile soil mix. Don’t use potting soil used for houseplants or garden soil for this step. Also, don’t reuse potting mix – start fresh. Doing this ensures healthy, disease-free seedlings. Most potting mixes have little to no nutrients in them. The bag might say that it will feed your plants for up to 6 months, but to ensure you get the healthiest plants, add your own liquid fertilizer a few weeks after the seedlings have sprouted.
Before you start putting the soil into the container make sure you moisten the soil. You don’t want the soil dripping wet or the consistency of mud. You just want it to be slightly moist. This makes sure that the seeds have moisture right off the bat and it helps them to germinate. Moist soil also helps to nourish seedlings as they do not have their own established root system yet.
As an aside, this is also a good time to test the soil in the area where you will be planting your new plants. Soil composition is as important as watering and sunlight, so one of the most important things you can do to have a successful garden is to have your soil tested. Get a test kit from Amazon and do it yourself, have your local nursery test your soil, or go to your local extension office and pick up a soil test packet which is usually a container that you use to send some of your soil away to be tested. You are looking to test for levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as well as the soil pH. The do-it-yourself kits and the results you receive from a testing lab will usually include recommendations for the correct levels of each depending on what you are planting – flowers, vegetables, etc. You can then amend your soil as needed.
If your garden is snow-covered and/or the ground is frozen, be sure to set up a reminder on your calendar to get your soil test done as soon as the ground thaws.
Plant Seeds at the Correct Depth
Most seed packets will have the recommended depth for planting on the packet. But what if you saved seeds or were given seeds by a friend or neighbor?
A general rule is to plant the seed twice the depth as it is long. Now, what does that mean? Let’s make this easier to understand. Measure your seeds and multiply by 2. If your seed is ⅛ of an inch, you will plant it ¼ of an inch deep.
Watering the Seeds
Water is essential for seeds and plants to grow. You do not want to over or under water your seeds as this will prevent them from germinating. Start with moist soil and water at least once a day. If you live in a drier climate, you may need to water twice a day. Check your soil to see if it is dry to the touch. If it is, add a little water.
Maintain Consistent Moisture
I recommend using a seed starting container with a lid that will create high humidity. This is the ideal environment for starting your seeds. This is by far the easiest way I have found to achieve a high humidity environment.
Another great method is to place your seeds between two wet paper towels and place them in a sealed plastic container with a lid.
Maintain Correct Temperature
Most seeds germinate at temperatures between 68° F and 86°F. Once your seeds have sprouted, keep them around 75°F. This will ensure that they remain healthy and continue to grow.
If you tend to keep your house a bit on the cool side, a warming mat like the one shown below will keep your seeds warm until they have sprouted.
Seeds do not normally need fertilizer while they are germinating. However, once they sprout and become seedlings, a weekly fertilizer may be needed to help them grow a strong, healthy root system. Looking at the package your seeds came in or a quick Google search will help you to understand the specific needs of your seedlings.
How Much Light Do My Seeds Need?
Some seeds germinate better in the dark and some need a moderate amount of light to start the germination process. Reading your seed package will let you know what your seeds need.
Once they have sprouted, all seedlings need light. Often, natural light from windows will not be enough, especially during the winter. You may need to use a grow light to provide enough light for the seedlings to grow and mature.
Your seed package should provide you with information on how much light your plants will require.
Seeds and plants need air to grow and thrive. Adding a fan to your set-up will help the air to circulate more and can also prevent a seedling disease called damping-off. Keeping the air around your seedlings moving will help them thrive and become healthy sturdy plants.
Hardening off your seedlings means getting them ready to plant outside. Start by taking your seedlings outside for an hour the first day and add an hour each day for seven days. This will get them used to the environment they will be growing in. After a week, they will have been outside for 7 hours at a time, and now should be ready to transplant to their permanent location.
During the first few days, provide your seedlings shelter when they are outside. Avoid direct sunlight and windy conditions. Allow them time to strengthen and become accustomed to the outdoors. A small temporary greenhouse like the one below works well for this task.
I also use one of these to harden off plants I buy at the greenhouse before planting.
Keep records of which plants germinate well and which don’t. Watch your plants grow throughout the season, take photos and note which ones you want to plant again. Use these records next winter as you do your garden planning.
Growing plants from seeds can be extremely rewarding. Watching your seeds grow and become healthy plants that bear beautiful flowers to decorate your home or vegetables that you can eat is a real treat.
Happy Seed Starting!