It’s possible to have a fine vegetable garden by buying young plants but experts say you will have a much wider range of possibilities if you start your own plants from seeds indoors.
Not only is it cheaper, but gardeners can buy seeds for many more varieties than what might be found for sale as plants. It is also possible to purchase seeds that will mature at different times, allowing your family — and friends — to enjoy your favorite tomatoes and other edibles over a longer period.
Experts at Burpee Seed and the Old Farmers Almanac recommend seeds for flowers or veggies should be sown indoors about six weeks before the last frost in the Edgar County area. According to the USDA planting zones map, Edgar County sits in zone six where the average last frost for our county is April 15. Back that up six weeks, and we’re looking at about the first of March — not that far away.
Don’t take on too much. Start with a couple of dozen plants in three or four varieties while you learn how it all works. Starting seeds is not difficult or complicated if you understand the process. The basic ingredients are a proper growing medium, containers, light, warmth, water and attention.
Before you start the seeds, the Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends teaming up with another family member or neighbor since a packet often yields much more than you need.
Other before starting seeds recommendations:
You may have to soak, scratch or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet.
Use clean containers. Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots and other growing containers, but egg carton compartments also make good containers. Yogurt cups work, too. Be sure to poke holes in the sides near the bottom of the containers you use.
Label your containers now. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.
Seedlings are very delicate. For the best chance of success, start them in a fresh, sterile seed-starting mix that is light and fluffy to hold just enough moisture. If the growing medium is too wet or not sterile, disease can strike. If it is too heavy or sticky, fine new roots won’t be able to push through it.
You can use bagged seed-starting mix, or buy compressed pellets of peat or coir coconut husk fibers that expand when wet. Since seeds contain the nutrients the seedlings will need, fertilizer isn’t important in your seed-starting mix. Another alternative for sowing seeds is choosing pots that break down in the soil. These can be planted right in the garden without disturbing the young plant’s roots.
Seedlings need lots of light or they will be stalky, spindly and feeble. A very sunny, south-facing window may do for a handful of plants if you are not too far north. But most gardeners use artificial lights so they can raise more plants and make sure they get enough rays. Many gardeners do just fine with inexpensive T-12 or T-8 fluorescent shop lights from the home improvement store.
The crucial thing is to rig the light fixture so you can raise it. You must keep the lights just 3 to 4 inches above the plants as they grow. That’s why incandescent light bulbs won’t work; if they are close enough to give a plant a useful amount of light, their heat will destroy it. Fluorescent bulbs give more light but stay cool.
Most often, a shop light is hung from open-link chains with S-hooks. As the plants grow, the light can be lifted link-by-link so it stays right above the plants. You can hang the light from a basement ceiling, from a homemade lumber frame or even under a table, with the plants on the floor.
A lamp timer will take over the chore of turning the lights on and off so the plants get 16 to 18 hours of light every day and a good rest at night.
Seed-starting happens in two stages: germination and growing. Germination is the sprouting stage, when the embryo of the plant emerges from the seed. Light isn’t needed at this stage, but you will need gentle warmth — not harsh heat. Provide it by setting the containers on top of a refrigerator or dryer; by propping them a few inches above — not on — a radiator or by using special heating mats sold for the purpose.
Once you see green sprouts about half an inch tall, move the plants under the lights in a cooler environment — about comfortable room temperature, between 60 and 70 degrees.
Plants consist mostly of water and they need it for the photosynthesis that gives them energy to grow.
Sow the seeds in moistened mix. Cover the containers to hold in humidity while the seeds germinate — with the cover from your kit, or with a loosely fastened plastic bag. Once they sprout, uncover the containers and water them from the bottom, by pouring water into the tray. Never water the seed-starting mix from the top — that can result in disease and may dislodge or damage the sprouts. Make sure air circulates freely so humidity isn’t trapped around plants.
Self watering seed-starting kits are helpful in keeping the water supply steady. In these arrangements, the containers sit on a fiber mat that wicks just enough moisture from a reservoir. These kits aren’t foolproof, and you still have to keep that reservoir filled with water.
You’ll need to check daily to see if the seeds have sprouted or to remove the cover when it’s time and move the sprouts under lights. and the work begins.
The gardener must keep a self-watering reservoir full; continually raise the lights so they stay just the right distance above the plants; and make sure the lights and timer don’t malfunction. If you are starting a few seeds on the windowsill, turn the plants every day so they don’t bend toward the light.
As you plan your seed starting, factor in your convenience and habits. Will you really remember to check seeds in the basement daily? It might be wiser to start seeds in the guest room or kitchen where they will be handier, even if you have space for fewer seedlings.
As your seedlings grow, watch the weather. Although a few crops can go outside earlier, most should stay indoors until after the last frost date for your area has passed and your soil has warmed. If the area is having a cold spring, hold off planting in your garden.
Gardeners are always eager, but many a carefully nurtured tomato seedling has been killed by a May frost or simply slowed down by cold soil. Protect your investment of time and attention by planting later rather than earlier.
Introduce your plants to the outdoors gradually, through a process called hardening off. For a few hours one fine spring day, then a few hours more the next, give your plants a taste of the outdoors, but bring them in at night. After a week or so, they will have acclimated to the outdoors and be ready to transplant.