A How-To For Seed Starting

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It’s time to start seeds for your vegetable garden. Here are a few tips to get you started.

The first thing to consider is space. You’ll need a place warm enough for germination or some way to warm your containers. We bring a patio table into the living room. It makes for pretty tight quarters but it’s only for a few weeks. We keep our house on the cool side so to add heat we use a lamp with an old-fashioned light bulb underneath the table to heat it up. We also have two seed mats that I found at a church rummage sale. Seed mats are expensive but they do help. You could use a heating pad, but it will have to be an older one as modern heating pads have auto shut-off mechanisms.

The second thing you’ll have to track down is containers. If you haven’t been saving small plastic containers it’s time to start or ask friends for theirs. We start our seeds using old yogurt containers with holes in the bottom for drainage. Making the drainage holes is easy, just heat up a nail over your stove (hold it with a pair of pliers and hold those with insulated gloves) and push the nail right through the bottom of your containers. You can also use an electric drill if you have one.

You’ll need a way to catch water overflow and some plastic covering to create a greenhouse effect. We use old baking sheets and random plastic containers we collect throughout the year to catch water and Saran Wrap over the top until the seeds germinate.

You’re going to need dirt. We do not use “seed-starting” soil. Last year we experimented and started some seeds using fancy (read: expensive) seed-starting soil and some using regular potting soil. The potting soil plants outstripped the others on every measure – size, health, germination. That sealed the deal for us, no more wasting money on seed-starting mixes. We know about the dangers of damping off (a fungal infection that will kill your seedlings) but this has not been a problem for us. One strategy I’ve heard used to avoid damping off is to use a shallow layer of seed starting soil at the top of every container. This method would provide an insurance policy for your seedlings.

You’ll need to mark your containers so you know what’s what. If you start 10 bell peppers and 10 hot peppers with the intention of only planting five of each, you are going to want to know what’s what come time to put them in the ground. You need to start a few more plants than you’ll use because some may not germinate or thrive. Anyway, use a permanent marker and be careful if you use a code that you write down what your code means, in case you forget!

Finally, you’re going to need a light source. We use regular fluorescent lights. You can find them at local hardware stores. We haven’t seen the need to spend a fortune on special grow lights. We have a frame to hold lights and plants on the front porch that Jim built a few years ago. (The building project is a post for another day!)

Our porch is unheated so we rely again on the incandescent bulb and a plastic tent system. The frame doesn’t fit in our living room so we hope for warm, early spring temperatures to heat the porch. The only time we run into real problems is during April cold snaps, when we have to drag all the plants back into the living room so they don’t freeze.

Check your seed packages for recommendations on when to start different crops indoors or check with your local Cooperative Extension office.

Starting seeds for your garden is rewarding. Once you’ve taken this on you’ll never want to shop at the mega-hardware center for plants again.