This time of year can be tough for gardeners. The holidays are over and we’re in a sort of gardening purgatory — I can see it on the horizon, but we’ve got plenty of cold, dreary days ahead before we can get outside and dig.
That’s one reason why I love starting seeds indoors — it gives me an opportunity to think about what lies ahead and actually do something. The ground may still be frozen, but I can start working on my vegetable and flower garden now.
If you’ve never tried starting seeds indoors, you’re missing out on one of the true delights of gardening. There’s something pretty great about having someone compliment me on something in my garden and being able to say in response, “Thanks, I grew it from seed.” It’s also a fun way to get my hands on plants that aren’t readily available at the local garden center, like heirloom plants, and rare and unusual vegetable and flower varieties.
Kick-off your seed growing venture by carefully reading the back of each seed packet. Some seeds require special treatment before planting, like soaking in water, chilling (called stratification), or nicking the seed coat (called scarification). You don’t want to find yourself ready to plant and then discover that your seeds need to chill in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
Another key to seed-starting success is timing, and that starts with your last average spring frost date. Here in Little Rock, we’re zone 8a, so our last average frost date is March 28. Most seed packets will tell you when to start growing indoors, often saying “Start 4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date.” So I simply look at the calendar and countback.
Next, choose containers for growing. You can use a variety of things around the house, including old yogurt cups, egg cartons, or hand-rolled pots made from newspapers. I picked up some seed starting trays from a nursery that I can reuse each year. I simply sterilize them between uses with a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water.
I’ve also had good luck using a quality potting soil to grow my seeds, but you can certainly invest in a soil-less seed starting mix. Whichever you choose, put your growing medium in a bucket with some water so that the soil is slightly damp before you fill your containers.
Seed packets will tell you how deep the seed needs to be planted. For example, Bachelor’s Button ‘Blue Boy’ (Centaurea cyanus) seeds need to be planted 1/4″ deep, with three seeds planted every 8″ – 10.” The packet also tells me that seedlings will emerge in seven to 14 days, so I have a good idea when to start looking for signs of life.
Once seeds are planted, you need to water. This is where it helps to have your potting mixture already moist. You can use a spray bottle filled with water to give your seeds a thorough misting, which provides enough moisture without roiling all your hard work.
I always cover my seed trays with plastic to create a mini greenhouse. Some seed trays come with plastic domes, or you can use kitchen plastic wrap, sandwich bags, or you can even slip your containers inside a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag. It doesn’t have to look pretty, just be effective.
Also, most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but they do need heat. I recommend finding a location that is ideally around 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, which may be in your kitchen, near your oven or on top of a refrigerator. (It helps to have a spouse or roommate who doesn’t mind dirt in the kitchen.) You can also use a seed heating mat, which is specially designed to heat soil and seeds from the bottom.
Once you see seedlings, remove the plastic covering and place plants in a spot with bright light. If you’re using a spot by a window, rotate your containers every few days so that seedlings don’t develop a lean. If you don’t have enough sunlight, you can always use grow lights or even fluorescent shop lights. Place the bulbs so that they’re only a few inches above the seedlings and set a timer so that lights are automatically on 12 to 16 hours a day.
The final step is to keep plants growing until it’s time to harden them off as they move outside in the spring. I’ll admit, I’ve had a few bombs — seeds that were too old to germinate or a tray that got overwatered and killed a crop of seedlings. But there are way more successes than failures, and that’s what keeps me coming back to seeds year after year. And on cold gray February and March days, seed starting is a life-line to spring gardening that I’ll grab every time.