Planning Ahead

Before we know it we'll soon be seeing seed and garden catalogs in our mailboxes. If you're like me, you're also receiving emails with all the pretty pictures of new varieties of vegetables and flowers and of course you say you want them all. The choice to grow plants from seed is a fulfilling one, but one that needs a few basic supplies and a little planning.

When getting ready to start your seeds, make sure to start with both high quality seed starting mixes that are sterilized and free of weed seeds and diseases as well as clean seed starting containers. Sterile potting mix also helps reduce the risk of disease of germination/growing seedlings. There are various options for containers from plastic flats to peat pots to pots made from newspaper that are rolled around a form. If you are reusing plastic containers from the previous year or you have doubts about whether or not they are clean, use a solution of water and 10% bleach to help clean and sterilize, but make sure to thoroughly rinse the container off afterwards. Once the containers are ready for planting, make sure to follow instructions on the seed packets for proper planting depth. Plant at the wrong depth and the seed may not have enough resources to reach through the soil surface.

Almost all vegetable seeds when germinating do not need sunlight, except for seeds such as lettuce which need light. It's not until the seedlings have broken the soil surface that you need to concern yourself with lights. Seedlings need an average of 12-16 hours of light per day, but with winter days being much shorter, there is the need to add in supplemental lighting to ensure healthy and vigorous growing plants. The easiest method to add supplemental lighting is to use a shop light with one cool and one warm white florescent bulbs. Grow bulbs are available, but are usually costly compared with buying fluorescent bulbs. Make sure that the light fixtures are adjustable and keep the lights approximately 4-6 inches away from the top of the seedlings. As the seedlings grow you'll need to raise the height of the lights, but raise the height too much and you will end up with leggy seedlings.

Make sure to provide consistent moisture for germinating seeds and seedlings. Seeds that dry out during the process of germination will stop the process and not be able to begin again. You can help keep your seeding flats moist by using mist bottles so that you don't disturb the seedlings and you can also use clear plastic covers that help to act as mini greenhouse keeping moisture inside and also helping increase heat as most seedlings need warmth to germinate efficiently. You can purchase heating mats to put below the seeding flats to increase bottom heat.

Part of the advantage of planning ahead when it comes to seed starting is making sure that you start your seeds at the right time so that they are ready to go out into the garden when it's time. Some plants need to be started indoor 6-8 weeks before being planted in the garden such as tomatoes. So if our planting date is May 10, then we count backwards 6-8 weeks which puts us around March 24. But then if we start looking at cooler season vegetables such as broccoli, which are a cool season crop that need to be started much earlier. For transplanting outside around April 6, you would need to start the seeds indoors around February 24. Consider having a calendar dedicated to seed starting and transplanting but marking the whens to make things easier. There are also seed starting calendars out there where you can enter in your last average frost date and it calculates when to seed and transplant all for you.

If you are still debating about what to grow this year, there are plenty of options and I would highly encourage you to try something new. Heirloom and open pollinated varieties are also very popular and worth looking at for something different. One of my favorite tomatoes is a purple heirloom by the name of Cherokee Purple. Crops to consider starting from seed inside include: tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, winter squash, summer squash, muskmelon, and watermelon. Many of the squashes and melons you can start from seed in the garden but by starting indoors you will get an earlier harvest. Starting plants from seed gives you more opportunity for variety than if you were to buy plants at the store. For more information about growing vegetables visit Watch your Garden Grow at on the University of Illinois Extension website.