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Winter Activity: Seed Starting

For a gardener on a budget, starting plants from seeds can be a great way to invest in a little equipment to save money in the long run. By starting heirloom seeds (not hybrid or GMO seeds), you will be able to save the seeds from your plants this year to get the same results next year. Imagine a gardening season that does not include going to the store to buy seeds or seedlings! But we will discuss seed saving later.

Seeds for most vegetables can be started indoors about 8 weeks before the last frost date. Since our last frost date is May 12, we will be starting our seeds indoors on St. Patrick ’s Day. Look at the seed packet to see if your seeds need to be started sooner or later. The seed packet will also tell you if the plant can be transplanted.

To start your seeds, you need:

Planting containers, about 3-inches deep, with holes in the bottom for drainage. Think yogurt cups, milk cartons cut down, or any other containers you have around the house that are about that size. If you use something smaller it will dry out faster.

Seed starting mix. There is really no getting around this one. Don’t use soil from your garden because it has weed seeds and other organisms in it that might be harmful to your seeds. Seed starting mix is available at any nursery or garden center.

Wooden popsicle sticks. Mark your plants. It is really difficult to tell a tomato from a pepper when they only have two leaves. On the tag, include the date you planted.

A warm place. Many people start seeds in their basements which can be cold and drafty. If this is your plan, get a heat mat. Read the instructions to be sure you are using it correctly and don’t substitute anything that is not designed specifically for gardening. Alternatives are placing your seedlings on top of your hot water heater, refrigerator, or radiators.

Seeds. Keep the seed packets if you can. The envelope will tell you when to plant, the expected germination time, planting depth, and when to put your plant outside in the garden.

Lights. There is a lot of information available on what type of light you should use, but basically, you want a grow light or fluorescent light that you can adjust to different heights as your plant grows. Most lights create some heat, so try not to bake your seedlings with them.

In a big bucket, moisten the seed starting mix. Not too soggy, more like a wrung out sponge. Fill your seed containers with soil to about an inch below the top, and put a wooden or plastic marker to indicate the plant names and sowing date. Make a furrow about ¼ inch deep and drop in your seeds about an inch a part. Fill in the furrows and gently press the soil over the seeds. Use a spray bottle to water so the seeds don’t wash away. Check often to be sure the soil is moist. Some people cover the container with clear plastic to hold in the moisture.

When your seedlings begin to emerge, get them light right away. Remove the plastic covering and put the seedlings about 1 to 2 inches below a strong light. Keep the light a couple inches above the seedlings as they grow up. If your plants are looking too tall and spindly (kind of like a new born colt), they are not getting enough light. Either move your light closer to your plants, or ask an experienced gardener for help.