How To Start Seeds Indoors

By beginning a garden indoors even the most sun-starved gardening enthusiast can get an early taste of spring.

Spring is the time of year when gardeners begin itching to be outside, turning soil, pulling weeds, cleaning out the garden, planting seeds and flowers, and enjoying the sunshine; but many areas of the country have frost and freeze advisories well into May. The best way to start your garden early and alleviate some of that spring fever is to start seedlings indoors.

The first thing you'll need to get your garden going inside is a sunny spot. Indoor lighting is sufficient if you have cool-white fluorescent bulbs, but baby seeds like direct sunlight best. They don't need sunlight all day long, but if you have a window or glass door with southern exposure, even a few hours a day will work well.

For planters, you can use a variety of containers. From clay pots to egg cartons, any container will work as long as it is clean and drains well. Egg cartons or peat pots must be soaked in water before adding soil and planting, as the material will draw moisture out of the soil. If you want to create a mini-terrarium, plastic "to go" containers or salad holders from restaurants work well. Clean any container thoroughly and poke holes in the bottom for drainage before adding your soil.

The soil must be good, healthy soil, free of debris and insects or other seeds. Sterile soil can be bought at most hardware, discount and garden stores; make sure it is a mixture of sphagnum peat or shredded peat moss and vermiculite or ground limestone. If you want to make your own soil mixture at home, use 1 part loam, 1 part clean sand, and 1 part leaf mold or moist peat.

If using pots or a mini-greenhouse, fill them to about ΒΌ inch from the top of the pot with soil. Moisten the soil and let it drain before planting the seeds. For the best results, use fresh seeds or seeds from last season that have been kept in a cool, dry environment. Poke holes in the soil with a pencil eraser: one seed per tiny pot or a few seeds per terrarium. Although the seedlings will ultimately be moved outdoors or into larger pots, you don't want to crowd them. In the right conditions, plants will grow quickly but they won't survive if they're crowded. Plant the seeds according to the directions on the package, usually about an inch down into the soil, and then cover them completely, but loosely, with soil.

Next set the newly planted seeds in a pan or on a tray covered with gravel. Any excess moisture will drain out the holes in the bottom of the pots and the moisture will stay underneath, but the pots won't be sitting in water, which can cause mildewing or rotting.

Water the soil lightly - a spray bottle filled with water is perfect for tiny pots or greenhouses, especially after the seedlings begin to grow. Ideally, the seeds, and ultimately seedlings, should be covered in a plastic of some sort. If you use the plastic container as a mini-greenhouse, just close the lid and the moisture will be retained inside the container. If small pots are used, cover them with a layer of plastic wrap until the seeds begin to grow, and then a clear plastic bag works well: simply put the bag upside-down over the pot, and then secure it to the sides with a rubber band. With the plastic moisture retainers, you won't need to water often and the moisture will be distributed evenly.

Once the seedlings begin to grow, keep them in the light as much as possible, and turn them each day so the stems will grow straight. After the tiny plants have grown at least four leaves, weakened fertilizer can be added to the soil, but only in small amounts. Keep the soil moist at all times, but do not over-water.

When it is time to plant the seedlings outdoors, you need to begin acclimating them first. A week or two before transplanting, move the seedlings outside to a shady area and leave them out at night if the temperatures will be above freezing. After a day or two, put them in the sun for an hour or so, and increase the time spent in the sun each day. Watch them closely for insects or slugs and keep the soil moist. On transplanting day, prepare the seedlings and the garden area by watering both thoroughly, and if possible, transplant on a cloudy day so the sun won't cause the seedlings to wilt. Dig a hole larger than the size of your pot or root system, and press good soil all around the roots. Water the plants immediately after planting, and every day after, for a week or so. Water them well so they'll develop deep roots.

One last tip: before you begin, calculate about how long until the last freeze. If the last freeze will be mid-May, plan on planting your seeds 4-6 weeks before, around the first part of April. If your seedlings grow quickly and you still have a lot of time until the frost threat is over, they can be transplanted into bigger pots until they go outside, but often, transplanting multiple times can put them into shock and they may not survive. One transplant is best.

With a little planning, sunshine, and care, even the most sun-starved gardening enthusiast can get an early taste of spring by beginning a garden indoors.

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