Starting Seeds Indoors
Whether you’ve got the winter blues and growing seeds helps you feel better, or you want to save a little money, starting seeds indoors can be fun. It can also be annoying, time consuming, and a big huge failure! Here are some ways to find success:
Start fresh. You will need new or clean supplies every year. Do not use pots from last year (unless disinfected), dirt from your garden, or anything that might have mold or bacteria. These little plants have a hard enough time–don’t make them fight disease as well. Shopping list:
- Tray of peat pellets, containers of vermiculite, or potting soil in pots–a medium to allow seeds to germinate.
- Clean pots (one per plant), and sterilized potting soil
- Fertilizer (unless you use a potting soil with fertilizer in it)
Give them space. You will want a space dedicated to your little seedlings. A basement, a bookshelf, a kitchen window. Avoid moving them all over the place. And remember, it can be dirty, so plan ahead.
Lots of light. “They say” that light from a south-facing window is not sufficient. The plants grow long and spindly, trying to reach the light. You may want to invest in extra lighting. Florescent lights are cheap and easy. Buy a shop light, warm bulbs, and cool bulbs. By combining, you get the full-spectrum of light. Or you can find bulbs especially for growing plants indoors. I imagine they are more expensive. Leave the lights on for 14 hours per day (the length of time makes up for the difference in intensity between natural sunlight and artificial lights).
Label it! One of the biggest mistakes is not keeping really good track of your plants. I find it easiest to plant different things next to each other (ie put peat pellets with broccoli next to bell pepper, then cauliflower, then hot peppers).
Here’s how to go about it:
1. Germination: you can start seeds in peat pellets, or in a cup (with holes for drainage) of vermiculite. I’ve tried both, and with vermiculite the roots really grow long and spread out, so I felt like the seed was getting the best start.
If you are using peat pellets, soak them until they are dark brown and fully expanded, poke a hole in the top and drop in 2 or 3 seeds, then cover with a bit of peat. Place in a warm, dark spot until they germinate, then put in the sun (or under lights) with the tray propped open.
For vermiculite, use a container with holes for drainage, and wet it until the vermiculite changes color slightly. I just fill mine until they drain out. Sprinkle seeds across the top. A good rule of thumb is to use double the number of seeds as you want plants. So if you want 4 bell pepper, sprinkle 8 seeds. Top with a thin layer of vermiculite. Keep moist and dark until seeds sprout. Then put them in the light.
2. Transplanting: When using vermiculite, it’s time to tranplant to pots when the plants have the first two leaves (seed leaves). Prepare pots with fresh potting soil or Mel’s Mix. Poke a nice deep hole with a pencil. Grab one of the seed leaves, loosen the vermiculite with a tip of a pencil, and lift it out. Do not touch the stem or roots. If the roots are long, trim them–this actually strengthens the plant. Place it in the pot, gently fill around the roots and stem, and water it. Keep in the shade for several days. I keep my extra seedlings in the vermiculite until I can tell my transplants are doing well.
If using peat pellets, wait until the roots start growing through the mesh. Prepare pots with potting soil, and use a spoon to scoop out a hole. Place the whole peat pellet in, and bury it so the peat has a small layer of potting soil on top. Water, and allow to rest out of the sun for a day or two. Once the plant is doing well, trim off all but the strongest seedling.
Of course, you can avoid transplanting by planting directly into pots with potting soil. The disadvantage of this is that if none of the seeds sprout or the seedlings are weak or die, you have to start over. By starting seeds en masse, you can choose the strongest ones to transplant.
3. Growing and feeding: Keep your plants under the lights for 14 hours per day. The lights should be a couple of inches above the plants, and you’ll need to keep raising them as they grow (or lowering your plants). Fertilize every 3-4 weeks. One source suggests giving the plants a little breeze (a very small fan), which helps the stems become more sturdy. I’ve also read that this helps prevent some disease.
4. Hardening off: A week or two before moving them to your garden, your plants need to get used to the outside weather. Start taking them outside (in the shade) for an hour or two during the nicest part of the day. Protect them from the wind. Extend the amount of time they spend outside each day gradually, and move them into more and more direct sunlight as time goes on. By the end of two weeks they should be outside day and night, and able to tolerate full sun. Watch the weather reports! A cold front or unusually hot temps could be a sad end to your hard work.
5. Planting in your garden: Move your seedlings to your garden according to your frost dates. Baby them a bit–try to do it on an overcast day, or give them some shade. Water them (this removes the air from around the roots), but don’t take it too far. A cup or two of water right where the plant is will be enough.
Wooo Hooo! The seed starting adventure has come to a close . . . now for the rest of the summer!