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Starting Seeds Starts Now!

Learn how and when to start your seeds indoors, plus what you'll need!

Starting Peppers Indoors“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

February the first marks the kickoff of a new gardening season. That’s when to start seeds indoors begins, at least for those lucky dogs in zones 8 and 9 and, even for them, only long-held seedlings like celery and onions. (Who even considers mostly frostless zone 10 except for those few of us — not me — that live in sub-tropical Florida?) For the rest of us, the time is fast approaching. You’ll want to be prepared. Time to gather up the things you’ll need to get your seedlings off to a good start.

First, the basics, not the least of which is good, fresh seed, carefully chosen for your particular needs and growing conditions. The second is soil, or more specifically, planting mix. A soilless mixture of peat (green gardener alert!) and vermiculite or some other planting medium like coconut coir is ideal. If you use some combination of compost or garden soil, be sure to sterilize it first by baking in an oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes (pew!) or by using another method. This will prevent your seedling from “damping off” or falling prey to other diseases. What’s going to hold that growing medium and your seedlings? There’s a variety of starting pots and flats available for all your needs, some of them organic and environmentally sound. If you’re reusing pots, be sure you sterilize them by soaking in a mild bleach solution then rinsing them thoroughly.

Of course, you already know these things. When I started out back when (garbled) was president, I thought that’s all you needed: good seed, good starting medium, a milk carton or two for containers, and maybe a sunny windowsill that would bring the newly emerged seedlings light. It took me a while to realize why my seedlings were always scraggly and twisted or why the seeds took so long to germinate if they germinated at all.

Since then, we’ve found two things that are indispensable to seed starting: heat and light. Let’s start with heat. Placing pots of freshly planted seed on a windowsill wasn’t ideal. I’ve lived in some places that were damp, dark, and cold in February and March; where indoor seed germination was risky. I tried things like laying my starting trays (carefully protected underneath) on radiators or near heat vents but this gave mixed results and often resulted in newly emerged seedling drying out overnight. The solution? A heating mat. Not only did the mat get my seeds to germinate consistently, it provided gentle warmth to the new seedlings just when they needed it. Covering flats and pots with a thin layer of plastic (don’t pull it tight but place it loosely over the pots) also increased my germination success.

The other component was light. Even a south-facing greenhouse window in a kitchen didn’t give seedlings the 12 and more hours of light required to keep the plants from becoming leggy. A simple fluorescent set-up can easily take care of this, whether it’s part of a system or just a fixture you hang above the plants. Make sure you’re able to adjust the height of the light as the plant grow taller.

Another thing I needed to know: how many weeks before last frost should different types of seeds be started indoors? Broccoli should be started 10 weeks before you plan to transplant it into the garden, tomatoes 4- 5 weeks. We’ve talked about introducing plants to the outdoors before. For more tips on starting seeds indoors check here (PDF). Then get started starting…

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