This morning when I walked into my office I was absolutely thrilled to see Hyacinths blooming. The first official day of spring was this past Friday (March 20) and last night we had our first spring thunderstorm. It's exciting to see things begin to wake up and the green come back to the world as plants return to life from their winter sleep. Stores are beginning to put out the gardening supplies – palettes of potting mix, seed packet displays, gardening tools, those things that excite the gardener in all of us.
A friend this morning asked me if she was late on getting seeds started for this year. I was happy to tell her that she still had time. When it comes to seed starting the first step is to make sure you have your timing right. Figure out when you want to put your plants into the garden, figure out how much time you need from start to transplant (check the seed packet or other resources for information about how much time is needed), and count backwards on the calendar. For example tomatoes typically need 6-8 weeks between starting the seeds to when you transplant them in the garden. So if my goal for transplanting my tomatoes into the garden is June 1st – I could start them on April 6th and be ready in time to plant outdoors.
For starting seeds indoors, you don't have to have a huge fancy or expensive setup. It can be pretty simple. Seed starting basics include pots or seed trays, seed starting mix, seeds, and a bright sunny window and/or supplemental lighting. Just remember – seedlings once they have sprouted need between 14-16 hours of light to produce nice stocky seedlings and not leggy ones. You don't need to purchase fancy grow lights to provide supplemental lighting – a shop light with a one cool white fluorescent bulb and one warm light fluorescent bulb will be sufficient. Until the seeds germinate, they won't need light but will need a warm place between 65-70 F and be kept moist (not drenched) to ensure germination. Seedlings that dry out when germinating will stop and will not be able to start again. To assist in germination – make sure to cover the containers with plastic to help keep in moisture so that the seed starting medium doesn't dry out. As soon as the seeds germinate, remove the plastic and place them out into the light.
Once the seeds have germinated and they've been moved into the light, then we need to continue managing soil moisture. It's best if you water thoroughly and let the soil dry out a bit between watering to help minimize the chance of damping-off. Damping-off is a fungal disease that attacks young seedlings and occurs in warm, moist soils so make sure there is good air circulation and use a sterile well-drained seeding starting mix to help minimize this from happening. Seedlings that suffer from damping-off will have dark discoloration at the soil line and then the seedling will shrivel and fall over.
Don't forget that seedlings will need to be transplanted to larger containers once they start to get some growth on them if you're growing them in seed flats or trays.
Prior to setting the transplants out into the garden or into containers you'll want to make sure to harden them off which is getting them used to outdoor growing conditions gradually over about a 2 week period. Place them into a protected shady area and each day exposing them to more and more sunlight. Of course if there is fear of frost make sure to provide protection or bring them back indoors. Starting seeds is a great project to get a jump on the gardening season and is a great activity to do with kids or grandchildren. Get them started early on gardening and it will stay with them for life.