by Mark Adams
So you’ve decided to plant a garden again this year. Only this time, you’ll get rid of those weeds before they grow seven feet tall. And you’ll put up a fence to keep out the critters. And you’ll remember that plants need food – fertilizer – to grow big and strong. And this time you’ll even kick it up a notch by starting your flowers and vegetables from seed!
Some vegetables, and a few flowers, can be grown from seed planted directly into the garden when the soil warms up in late May: beans, squash, pumpkins, sweet corn, zinnias, sunflowers. Even earlier – in April – for cold-tolerant varieties including peas, radishes, carrots and beets. But many others will require a head start by sowing the seed indoors a few weeks ahead of spring planting time. For example, pepper plants take a long time to mature. Pepper seed sown directly into the garden in May will not have time to produce fruit before the season ends in September, if they germinate at all. Other popular varieties to start indoors include tomatoes, broccoli, basil, collards, kale, eggplant, marigolds, pansies and snapdragons. Once you get the hang of it, you can try geraniums, petunias and begonias. I sow more than a million seeds in the greenhouses every winter, starting with pansies in November, and even I have never attempted begonias – the seed looks like dust.
Starting from seed means you can choose from thousands of varieties, not just whatever is available as starter transplants at the local garden center. The Johnny’s Seed Catalog, available online, lists 86 different varieties of lettuce, and 104 tomatoes. Please note – Because of the soaring demand, Johnny’s is only taking bulk orders until they re-open for home gardeners on February 10. A good alternate for seeds is Burpee. Retail seed racks at Agways and garden centers have a decent selection, but they’re already selling out fast. When I couldn’t find my favorite cucumber – Fanfare – in any seed catalogs, I bought it from the website Etsy. I hope it’s real.
Now for the fun part:
- Choose a container with good drainage. A shallow tray, little flower pots, cardboard egg cartons, or even Styrofoam cups, with holes poked in the bottoms.
- Use a sterilized seed starting mix to fill the container. Garden soil will contain weed seeds and pathogens. You can sterilize garden soil by putting it in the oven at 180 degrees for an hour (use a meat thermometer), but you might still need to mix in peat moss to make it fluffier.
- Water the mix thoroughly, until water flows out of the drain holes.
- Now, sow the seeds into the mix, poking them just under the surface. Some varieties need light to germinate (lettuce, impatiens and geraniums come to mind). They should be scattered on top of the mix and covered with a thin layer of vermiculite, which will allow some light to bleed through.
- Speaking of light, that’s the number one requirement for successful indoor seed starting, and too little light is the guarantee for failure. Since the plants will eventually go into the garden, a fancy full-spectrum gro-light is unwarranted. What you need is a lot of bright light, 18 hours a day, if possible, or the young plants will stretch. Even direct sunlight might not be bright enough in February.
- Heat – 75 degrees is ideal for germinating seeds. At a lower temperature, it takes longer. Below 55 degrees, they might not come up at all. Once the seeds have sprouted, you can turn down the heat.
- Growing on – Water when the soil dries out. Don’t drown the little guys. Fertilizer is probably not needed until they they go into the garden. As the plants grow and the weather warms up in April, set the young plants outside for a few hours a day to toughen them. Otherwise, they won’t stand up to the first windy day in the garden.
- Keep a journal, so you won’t make the same mistakes twice. And please let me know how you make out with the begonia seeds.