Gardening can be the most satisfying hobby in the world, resulting in beauty, food, and a keen sense of satisfaction. Plug a seed in some dirt and nature performs a miracle. In the beginning, a gardener can feel overwhelmed by the complexities of gardening manuals, so it’s best to start simply and learn by trial and error.
A few simple tips for starting seeds indoors will boost the beginning gardener’s success rate and confidence.
1. Use a Seed Starting Mix.
Gardening on a budget might lead you to take some short cuts. So you fill your saved yogurt and margarine plastic containers and fill them with dirt you dug up from the back yard. Cost: $0.00 so far! The spendthrift in you is standing up and cheering.
Don’t get too excited yet, because while this experiment in frugality could work, you would be better off springing for a bag of artificial seed starting mix. Let’s explore what will happen if you go the “thrifty” route:
* The soil you dug up is denser than a bag of potting soil, making it more difficult for the seed to get the oxygen it needs. You could mix in some peat or sand to lighten it up, but…
* The soil has other seeds in it from past seasons, dormant and ready for the right conditions, which you are about to provide. As a beginner, how will you know that your seedling is really an eggplant and not a poke-berry? Even a seed packet’s identifying picture can be remarkably similar to weeds.
* Insect eggs that hatch and eat tender vegetation, fungi, and other soil-borne problems will only cause trouble.
A seed-starting mix is recommended for starting seeds indoors. Avoid potting soils with fertilizers – these are meant for older plants and may do more harm than good for your purposes. A seed starting mix has a small amount of fertilizer, enough to get you started.
2. Pass on old seeds.
Seeds lose their viability as they age; the older they become, the less viable (likely to sprout) they are. In general, you want fresh seeds, preferably from last summer, but no older than four years. For best results, buy seeds from a company who offers a guarantee.
Before you plant anything, test seed viability: Place at least ten of one kind on a slightly damp paper towel. Fold it over and seal in a Ziploc bag. Put the bag in a warm place away from direct sunlight, then check it every day to watch for germination and lightly spritz if it becomes too dry. Some types of seeds take longer to sprout than others, but once the first seeds of a batch sprout, others should follow within days. What you want is a good ratio of germination – at least 7 should sprout of the 10.
Don’t expect too much from saved seeds of produce you bought from the grocery store. Most produce sold in supermarkets are hybrid varieties whose seeds are infertile or will not reproduce the exact same fruit. If you save seeds from any “heirloom” produce, however, you can expect to grow the exact same specimen in your garden.
3. Don’t overwater.
Before you plant the seeds in the seed starting mix, moisten the mix with water to reach the right amount of moisture: damp, but not too soggy. That way you can plant the seeds exactly as the instructions say without disturbing them later with watering. Seeds need to be in contact with moisture in order to germinate, but too much water will kill your efforts.
To maintain the right level of moisture, cover the pots after planting with a sheet of clear plastic. The covering should not be sealed tight. You have many choices for containers – saved Styrofoam and yogurt cups work equally well as a seedling flat from the store, so long as you poke holes in the bottoms of the cups to give adequate drainage. You can even save fast-food salad containers with the clear plastic covering, but drill plenty of holes in the top and bottom, otherwise the seedlings will cook and drown.
Watering is only necessary when the soil is visibly dry and the seedlings are about to wilt. Some gardeners like to keep peat seedling pots in a tray for watering from the bottom up. They put the water in the tray, wait for the peat pots to soak up enough water so the top soil is moistened, then they drain the extra.
4. Avoid leggy situations.
Once the seedling puts its head above the earth, light is as important as warmth. The ideal temperature depends on what you are growing, but all plants need adequate light to grow. The new sprouts will grow quickly toward the light, and if it’s not bright enough, the stems will elongate in an unhealthy way. That leggy situation is best avoided by providing light. You could get by with placing plants near a south-facing window.
Other options are to build an outdoor cold frame, or rig up a shop-style fluorescent light fixture over the plants, positioned inches above the leaves of the plants. These last options aren’t easy, but will result in healthier seedlings.
For that reason, it’s best to strategize planting times so that the seedlings are just about adequate for transferring outdoors when the temperatures will support them. Starting seeds too early will require you to “pot up” – or transfer seedlings to larger pots to accommodate root systems and allow for growth. If your seedlings become leggier than they should, you can pot-up, planting the seedling to bury most of the stem as well. Or, start a second batch.
5. Don’t shock the seedlings.
“Hardening off” is the process of acclimating the seedlings to their new turf outdoors without shocking the young plants, which can either cause a setback, cessation of growth, or death. When the temperatures outside are mild enough for the plant you are growing, begin the transfer by putting the seedlings outside for increasing amounts of daylight hours, then bring them back inside at night. Seedlings begun indoors are accustomed to a sheltered environment, so to begin with they need just a few hours of outdoor conditions, protected from wind and direct sunlight.
Over the next few weeks, increase their exposure to direct sunlight, wind, and rain as you gradually decrease watering. If you’re using a cold frame, simply open the frame for increasing periods of time. This stage of gardening can be time-intensive, requiring attention to temperatures day and night to prevent frozen plants when the temperatures dip, but will ensure a better transition and a healthier start for your plants. When the plants have spent an entire day and night outdoors, they are ready to plant in prepared garden beds.
Of course, you don’t have to start your seeds indoors. You can wait until the weather is warmer, or purchase seedlings from a nursery. Still, this aspect of gardening gives you much more versatility in what you can grow and when it will bear fruit. If you’re new to gardening, don’t let the science scare you away. This is one hobby that allows a lot of flexibility and room for error. With these few tips, you can proceed with confidence, dig your hands in the dirt, and experience the miracles of nature.