Plant life appears dead at this time of the year and so do any thoughts of gardening in frigid temperatures. So why not bring the garden indoors? This is a perfect time to seed start for the months ahead.
Typically, seeds are started six weeks indoors before the last frost date for your area, since frost can damage seedlings. Then, they get transferred to the outdoors for faster, healthier growth. Beginners tend to get overwhelmed with all the jargon and might just take a step back by buying grown plants at the local nurseries. What’s the fun in that? In my view, exploring the seed lifecycle is very exciting. It does not require a lot of equipment and can be easily started with what we have at hand.
The first task is to gather containers, which can be found in everyday household items such as egg cartons, empty milk jugs or other throwaway food containers, if you are on a shoestring budget. Ideally, choose individual paper products which can be directly planted into the vegetable bed so as not to disturb the seedling roots. Poke some drainage holes in them and we are good to grow.
Next comes choosing the seeds. If you are just starting out, it helps to go small by growing just a few common varieties until your confidence level builds up. Some of the surefire favorites are tomatoes, marigolds and zinnias. Each seed has its own specific needs. Understanding its light requirements, oxygen needs and temperature will improve chances of a successful germination. Another fun method is to look in your pantry and see what could become a viable seed. Dried beans, sprouted potatoes or seeds from a raw tomato can all be used in your experimental lab. Sometimes, soaking the bigger seeds prior to planting helps with germination.
The easiest part of the process is choosing the growing medium. Readymade, store-bought seed starter trays or potting mixes work amazingly. If you are the DIY type, you can prepare your own mix for a fraction of the cost, and get a great learning experience of what nutrients help seeds grow. A great formula is to mix equal portions of sphagnum peat-moss, perlite and vermiculite (found in any garden center store) to make a champion soilless media for all types of seeds. Both peat-moss and vermiculite help with moisture retention. Perlite prevents compaction so air can circulate to the roots for better growth.
Then, choose the right lighting conditions. Most above-ground flora need light to develop and grow strong. Raising plant life indoors due to the outdoor weather conditions has its limitations. They need light that mimics the sun’s rays. This is an important part in the growth process of a seedling, or else they will not see the light of day.
Only the brightest windows are suitable for growing seeds, and sometimes window sills are too cold for successful growth. For that purpose, hanging a light source right above the tiny growth, at about 3 inches, helps them to stand upright and gain strength each day. One alternative is to buy a plant grow light (labeled as such). Although perfect, they tend to be a tad bit expensive. A great option is to use daylight-tinted white lightbulbs or tubes. Daylight bulbs or tubes are very economical and provide the needed light to grow.
Having a spectrum range of 5000k to 6500k, with 32 to 40 watts, is optimal. With higher lumens comes greater brightness, wattage and heat. The light should be on for at least 16 hours to simulate the availability of sunlight. Use a timer to control that interval.
Apart from equipment, timing is crucial in determining which seeds should be planted during each month. The seedlings typically stay indoors for six weeks until the seeds’ optimal outdoor temperature for survival is reached.
Last but not the least, it is pivotal to water the right amount. There should be a way to drain the excess water. The growing medium should be moist but not soggy.
Seed starting might seem like a monumental task, but the process becomes easier and more enjoyable over time. Because honestly, what is more enjoyable than watching new life grow?
Steve Marple is an experienced gardener who has lent his vast gardening knowledge to this article.