There are so many reasons why you should start your own seeds for transplant in the Spring! First, you can get exactly the varieties you want! Second, it can be cheaper. And it is a great way to bring hope into those last few weeks of winter! For some people, it can be a source of frustration though. Seed germination and growing seedlings have a very specific set of conditions that they need to be strong and healthy transplants and it can vary from seed to seed! Here are some tips to help you get started...
1. What are you going to pot in?
This could be just about anything! There are all sorts of seed starting systems, pots, and trays, that we sell in our garden shop, but you can really use any kind of container- yogurt cups, paper cups, milk cartons, or anything else that meets the following criteria: 2" deep (or more), drainage holes, and clean & sterile! To clean pots/trays from last year just wash thoroughly with a mixture of bleach and water (usually 1 part bleach to 8 parts water).
2. What kind of soil should you use?
The best soil is Seed Starting Soil! Why? Because it is specially formulated for getting your seeds off to a great start! It is light and fluffy and holds just the right amount of moisture. NEVER use soil from your gardens or from last year's pots. Always use NEW, sterile mix! We LOVE Espoma's Seed Starting Mix! You may want to moisten it a bit before you put it in your containers- just put it in a bucket and add a little water and mix thoroughly and then put it into your containers.
We carry Hart's, Botanical Interests, and Creambelt Seed Co. Seeds
3. When and how do I plant the seeds?
Make sure that you are not starting your seeds too early (or too late!). The package of seeds will usually include days to harvest and planting instructions. You will want to start things with longer to harvest dates earlier and hold off on the quicker ones. Otherwise you end up with zucchini that is ready to be transplanted in March and tomatoes that won't have enough time to fruit! See this Seed Starting Chart by Heirloom Organics for the best time to start seeds for Spring transplant- both indoors and out. Usually the rule is don't bury seeds any deeper than their diameter. Some seeds like to be right by the surface (or even on top). Then you can carefully water them with a mister or small watering can. Most "greenhouse kits' will include a plastic lid to put on top of the tray to help maintain moisture and help speed up germination. You can also use plastic wrap or bag- just don't forget to remove it once you see that the seeds have sprouted.
4. Where should I grow my seedlings?
Wherever you have the most light! You can try a south facing window, just make sure to turn your pots occasionally as the seedlings are going to reach for the sun. You can also use lights and put them on a timer for 15 hours a day. If your seedlings are too tall and spindly that can mean that they are not getting enough light. Also, although seeds like warmth to germinate, once they do you need to make sure that it is not too hot or they can shoot up too quickly and get spindly. Good air circulation is a must! This will help prevent disease and damping off.
5. How often do I water and fertilize?
The soil needs to stay moist at all times- but not soggy! This can be very tricky! People always ask us how often to water- but there are so many variables, like temperature, light exposure, size of the plant, etc. that there is not one magic answer- it really just depends! You really need to look at your plants and touch the soil to see how it feels. Some kits are "self-watering" from the bottom so you just need to keep the bottom full of water. You will need to fertilize every week to 10 days (see the instructions on the fertilizer that you are using)- remember more is not better! If you over fertilize, you can end up with very tall and spindly plants (or you can even kill them!). If you under fertilize, your plants may not have the nutrients that they need to be healthy and strong producers once you transplant them in the garden or into containers.
The best advice is to be vigilant! You can't expect your plants to be at their best if you are not taking your best care of them! Check on them EVERY DAY! Make sure to follow the guidelines for taking the plastic off once they have germinated, giving them enough light (and turning them if in a window or raising the lights if you are using grow lamps), and water and fertilize them as needed. As the day approaches for them to be transplanted outside, remember that they have to be "Hardened Off"- this means that you need to slowly introduce them to the outdoors over the span of a week or more BEFORE they can be safely transplanted. On day one (a nice warm Spring day), put them outside for an hour or two and then bring them back in. The next day for 3 or 4 hours, and bring them back in. Keep doing this until they have made it through a full day (and then a night)- making sure to keep an eye on the weather outside. If it is too cold, too windy, or pouring rain you will want to move them inside again. Once you have hardened them off and all chance of frost is past they are ready to be transplanted outside!