Early spring is here. This is great news for gardeners who want to plant cool season crops. But for warm season crops, the passing of the equinox is a siren beckoning gardeners to plant outdoors too early. Those of us waiting to plant warm season crops can get a head start by starting them indoors from seed.
The process begins with seed selection. Browse your local garden shop for varieties that work well with our short growing season, maturing in 90-120 days depending on your location. Be sure to pick seeds that were packaged for this growing season. Plant what you and your family will eat, or if planting a row for the hungry, what the food bank needs.
Once you have selected your seeds, your next task will be to pick suitable pots. You can repurpose yogurt containers or reuse plastic plant 6-packs, but whatever you use must be sterile. Clean pots and rinse them with a 10% bleach solution. Be sure to punch holes in the bottom for drainage.
With seeds and pots in hand, the next step is to choose a quality soilless mix. For best results, do not use garden soil. Instead, sow seeds in a seed-starting mix that is sterile, lightweight and has very fine particles. Mix your own or purchase a commercially available product. To plant, follow the directions on the seed-starting mix and on the seed packet. Typically, very small seeds are simply pressed into the soil while larger seeds are placed and then lightly covered with soil.
The final step to starting seeds indoors is location, location, location. At first, your seeds will not need light. They will need warm, moist soil. To maintain even soil warmth and moisture, place your pots on a tray, slip the tray into a large unsealed plastic bag and put it on top of your refrigerator. Check on your seeds daily, and add water to the tray or mist the top of the containers with a spray bottle as needed.
As soon as your seeds sprout, remove the plastic bag and relocate the tray to an area of the house with 12-16 hours per day of light. South-facing windowsills work well, but plants can also be placed under a florescent lamp. Move the lamp as plants grow, keeping the light approximately 6-inches away. Where ever the plants end up, be sure to keep them moist, and rotate them to prevent plants from leaning.
If your seed-starting mix did not include plant nutrients, apply water-soluble house plant fertilizer at one-quarter to one-half strength a few days after germination. Reapply at full strength in two-week intervals after the first few weeks. Or, lightly top dress with good quality compost.
Once your seedlings develop their second set of leaves, either transplant or thin them with scissors to one seedling per pot. This ensures healthy plants that are not competing for water and nutrients. As mid-May and June near, harden off your plants to ready them for outdoor planting.