Gardening 101: Starting Seeds Indoors

*Part 2 of 5 of my Gardening 101 series.*

Welcome to part 2 of my Gardening 101 series. Today we're going to talk about starting your vegetable seeds indoors. Starting seeds indoors is easy to do, and a lot more frugal than buying plants from a nursery, or big-box store.

Why do I need to start my seeds indoors, instead of directly sowing them into my garden?: You don't need to start your seeds indoors, but for those who live in a zone that has a short growing season, or for those who would like to harvest fresh produce as soon as possible, planting your seeds inside while it's still cold will give you a head start on the growing season. You'll be able to enjoy fresh vegetables much sooner then you would with the direct sow method. Personally I do a mix of both. I plant my cold weather crops, such as onions and kale directly into the ground. That way I usually don't have to worry about a late frost destroying my seedling plants. I do like to start my warm weather crops inside though, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, so I can harvest and enjoy their yield sooner.

So when exactly should I start my seeds inside?: You want to start your seeds about 6 weeks before you'll be planting them in your garden. Just make sure you'll be transplanting your seedlings at the proper time. Are they a cold-weather or warm-weather crop? What zone do you live in? Your seed packets usually contain that information on the back of the packaging. Check out my first installment of this series, Spring Gardening Season is Here! for more detailed information.

Some of the tomato seeds I planted to give them a good start, before planting them as seedlings in my garden.

What Equipment Will I Need?:

• Containers: Plastic cells, peat pellets, peat pots, toilet paper tubes, or even recycled containers, such as yogurt or cottage cheese cups. Which one you use depends on your personal preference and budget. I prefer using the large size yogurt containers, or large Styrofoam cups. That way I don't have to transplant my seedlings into larger containers before they are ready for the garden.
• Seed starting soil mix: Don't use garden soil to start seeds indoors. It's to heavy, and isn't light enough to allow tender seedlings to grow quickly.
• A light source - Growing lights: Often times a window sill doesn't provide enough light, and will cause your plants to become "leggy".
• A heat source: A heat mat, or the top of your fridge.
• Water
• Seeds
• Plastic wrap: Containers should be covered the first few days so they retain moisture.
• Fertilizer

Choosing a seed-starting mix: Seed-starting mix is specially formulated for young seedlings and their tender roots. You can make your own, but that can be complicated, so I buy the organic pre-made kind sold in stores.

Moisten the seed starting mix: It should be moist but not soggy.

Fill the containers about 3/4 full with soil: Make sure you have several drainage holes in the bottom of your containers. (About 5)

Plant your seeds: Check the back of the seed packet to see how deep to sow the seeds. I like using an unsharpened pencil to make the holes, but you can use your finger too. Put two to three seeds in each container and cover them with a light dusting of the potting mix. Cover them with plastic to lock in moisture, then set them on top of your refrigerator or a heating mat. Planting lettuce takes a different approach. It's better to sprinkle them on top of the soil, then cover them with a very light sprinkling of soil. Lettuce grows quickly, so it is best suited for direct sowing to your garden.

A picture of the tomato I saved my seeds from last year. They are called Old German and are huge!

Label your seeds!: No matter how much you think you will remember what you planted, mark the pots anyway. I have heard story after story, as well as done it myself, of how gardeners cant remember what was planted where. You can write on the outside of the container with a marker, my favorite, or even write the name of the plant on popsicle sticks, and stick them in the pot. You can buy a large bag of them in the craft section of most store.

Check the containers daily: Make sure the soil stays moist, but not so wet that the plants mold. If you see signs of mold, loosen the cover and let air in. The mold should disappear. When the first green shoots emerge, remove the plastic cover and move your seedlings to a sunny spot that provides plenty of light and warmth. If it is cool, you'll want to use a heating mat. (I prefer to water from the bottom up by setting pots in a plastic tray and filling it with about half an inch of water) If you have your seedlings in a window sill, you'll want to give the pots a quarter turn every couple of days, so the plants grow straight instead of bending towards the light.

Thinning plants: Once your seedlings have developed their first set of true leaves, (The first leaves on a seedling are cotyledons, not true leaves), you'll want to thin them. Keep the largest one in each pot, and snip off the other 1 or 2 at the soil line with a pair of scissors. (For onions, which send up a single blade, thin them once the blade reaches 2 inches tall)

Don't miss next weeks installment where we will discuss transplanting seedlings outside.

Gardening 101 Series:

Part 1 - Spring Gardening Season is Here!
Part 2 - Starting Seeds Indoors
Part 3 - Transplanting Seedlings Outside
Part 4 - Caring For Your Garden
Part 5 - After The Harvest

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