Stepping outside yesterday, the wind was howling, snow flurries were sporadically falling and it was difficult to believe that Spring will ever make an appearance. But Spring IS coming and gardeners like me know it is possible to jump-start the growing season while the snow is still falling. Of course I am talking about starting seeds indoors. With a minimal investment in money and time you can grow your own plants for your yard and garden. This hobby not only provides ‘plant therapy’ during the cold, winter months, but it allows you to grow a greater variety of plants than are available at local stores and nurseries. In addition, a small investment in a package of seeds and soil usually yields multiple plants for less money than one fully-grown plant. But the best part is, the plants started from seed will become something you will want to nurture and see grown to fruition. (I know very few people who are capable of nurturing a growing plant for several months and not become eager to see the resulting fruit or flower. Talk about an investment in your yard and your emotional welfare!)
What’s more, the vegetable and herb plants you grow yourself can also provide a healthy, nutritious alternative for your family’s meals. They can easily be grown without chemicals (organically) and can provide an incentive to experiment with different recipes and ingredients. I am also a firm believer in the idea that vegetables, fruit and herbs you grow yourself just taste better. (Some folks debate this, but even these folks are usually eager to taste their first tomato of the season from the garden!)
How do you get started? First of all, you will need a good quality potting mix, seeds and some type of pot or container and cover. Recycled egg cartons can work but you must first poke holes in the bottom for drainage. The egg carton lid can then be placed underneath the egg carton ‘pot’ to catch the drainage water. Other recycled containers can also be used; yogurt containers, square milk containers, etc. Just keep in mind the need for drainage holes so the plants do not drown and the location where you will be growing them. The seedlings will need light to grow and prosper so narrow pots that fit in a south windowsill may be a good option. You will also need some sort of clear plastic bag or dome to be placed over the top of the planted seeds to keep moisture from evaporating. This will be removed once the seedlings have grown some to avoid having too much water in the soil. Of course commercial seed-starting supplies are also available via catalogs, in stores and on-line. But for the average home gardener, these supplies are not necessary.
Each seed packet should tell you how many weeks the seeds need to be planted before the last frost date. They will also tell you if the seeds need to be cold-treated (placed in the refrigerator), nicked (to help break through a hard shell) or soaked in water before planting. Read the packet carefully and follow the instructions.
Now you are ready to plant your seeds. Spread newspaper over the surface you will be planting on first. This will allow easier clean up when finished. Make sure your pots have drainage holes or poke the holes now. Fill each pot about 3/4 of the way to the top and water if the soil isn’t already moist. The soil should be moist but not saturated. Next, plant the seeds according to the package directions. Some seeds need light to germinate so they are planted on top of the soil. Some need to be lightly covered so they can be sprinkled with a light layer of potting mix. Some seeds can be pushed into the soil and covered. The general rule of thumb is to match the plant depth with the size of the seeds. In other words, if the seed is very small, it should either be placed on top of the soil or lightly covered. But if the seed is large, it should be planted deeper. If you are planting in small seed cells, plant 1-2 seeds per cell. The bigger the pot, the more seeds you can plant together. Just remember, each seedling will need room to grow if you want healthy plants. Once planted, lightly mist the surface of the soil with a squirt bottle filled with water. Label the pot with the name of the plant and date (masking tape placed on the side of the pot or a popsicle stick in the soil work well) and cover with plastic bag or dome. Place the pot in the windowsill or under grow lights (if you have them). Check every day or so and do not let the soil dry out. An added caution is to be careful not to over water the seedlings. (Too much water is just as disastrous to seedlings as too little water!) The seed packet will describe the length of time until germination. This is the time you should start seeing green emerge from the soil. Once green emerges and the first set of ‘true’ leaves emerge, (these are the first leaves grown after those that emerged initially from the soil) the cover can be removed. Remember, the seedlings will dry out much more quickly without the cover so you will need to water them more. A water-soluble fertilizer can then be added to the watering routine. Fish emulsion works great for herb plants but other organic fertilizers are available on the market too. Once the plants become larger, they will need to be divided and placed into separate pots. This can be accomplished easily as long as the roots are minimally disturbed. We will cover this topic in future months.
Once you have started tiny seedlings yourself, you will be hooked and want to start more. There is just something magical about the tiny seeds sprouting and coming up through the soil just when you have almost given up hope it will happen. But Mother Nature is very resilient and is full of surprises. Don’t give up hope and you will be rewarded with lots of plants to enjoy all season long.
Seed starting. Another of Life’s Simple Pleasures!
Intrigued and want to learn more? Stay tuned to our blog or ‘get your hands in the dirt’ in person at one of our hands-on workshops. The Simple Heart of Life herb shop will be hosting several workshops this year designed for those folks who want to share their interest in gardening and herbs. Check out our Herb Shop Happenings or Facebook page to learn more.