Late February and early March are a tough time of year for gardeners! The weather is starting to warm up, and there are undeniable signs that spring is on its way… but it’s still too early to get out into the garden and actually do any planting.
Well, don’t despair…I’m here to share an easy way to get your gardening fix right now, that will also help save money in the long run: starting seeds indoors!
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Today I’ll show you how to get your seeds planted, and I’ll do another post in the coming weeks about caring for your precious seedlings.
What Will You Grow?
To get a head start on the growing season, first you’ll need to decide what you want to plant. For a vegetable garden, this means knowing what plants are best started from seed in the ground, and which can benefit from starting indoors.
“Direct sow seeds” (those that can be successfully planted directly into the ground) include beans, corn, peas, squash and gourds, carrots, and melons. Since these plants germinate quickly and effectively, there’s not much of an advantage to starting them indoors.
A lot of vegetables can be equally successful if started indoors or out, like onions, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cucumber. So depending on your climate, you may want to start these seeds indoors simply to get a head start on the growing season, which would mean you get to enjoy them earlier!
Some kinds of vegetables have long growing seasons, and in most places in the U.S., wouldn’t have enough time to set and ripen if sewn directly into the ground. These kinds of plants include tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos.
Selecting Your Seeds
Once you know what kind of plants you want to start, it’s time to get some seeds!
University Extension offices are a great source for information about which varieties of plants are best suited for your climate. This information can be found on their website.
This information can also be found on seed packets produced by seed companies that are local to your area. (If you’re in or around Utah, I highly recommend Mountain Valley Seed Co! They have a large variety of seeds available, with plenty of heirloom and organic options.) Many seed companies now have their seed catalogs available to download on their website for free, so you can see all the varieties and cultivars they have available.
Once you’ve selected and purchased your seeds, you’ll need something to grow them in. You can start seeds in almost any small container, like an empty yogurt cup, a toilet paper tube, a paper cup, etc.
Simply fill your container with a soilless seed starting mix, and plant away. (Soilless mixes are best for starting seeds because they’re sterile and less likely to compact.) But if you’re planting a lot of seeds, it can be hard to round up enough recycled “cups.” In that case, a tray of peat pellets is an easy and affordable option.
Peat pellets are made of dehydrated peat moss in a mesh sleeve, which has been compressed down into a small disk about the size of a poker chip.
To get them ready for planting, you simply pour water on them a bit at a time. After about 3 minutes they will grow to approximately 2 inches tall, and the moss inside will be moist and ready for seeds.
You can buy peat pellets on their own and use any kind of plastic flat you may have lying around, or you can get pellets as part of a kit. I chose to purchase a starter kit made by Jiffy, which contains 50 peat pellets, a plastic tray to support them, and a lid. And since it was just $11 on Amazon, I went ahead and got two!
Planting Your Seeds
Now that you’ve prepared your seed medium, all that’s left to do is plant! But before you start, it’s important to identify which plants are which. You can do this by writing the name of the plant on a craft stick and putting it in each container, or you can set up a grid system, which is what I did.
I put a piece of painter’s tape on the short side and long side of each tray, and labeled them with letters for the rows, and numbers 1-10 for the columns. My first tray has rows A through E, and my second tray has rows F through J.
Then I drew two grids on a piece of paper, each with 5 rows and 10 columns, and indicated which plants were going to go in each of the “cells.” (Of course, this is simply how I chose to do it, but there’s really no wrong way, as long as you can remember what’s what!)
The actual planting of the seeds is the simplest part! :-) It’s a good idea to put two or three seeds in each container or pellet, so you have a backup if one doesn’t germinate. (If all the seeds germinate, you can easily snip the extras off using a pair of scissors.) Consult your seed packets for the recommended planting depth of each plant, then put your seeds in at the correct depth, and cover them up with moss or planting mix.
Finally, cover your seed tray with its cover (if it has one,) or cover it with plastic wrap.
To ensure your seeds have the best shot at successfully germinating, you’ll need two things: warmth and moisture. Covering the tray helps to minimize the loss of both, but you may need to give it some additional help. Certain plants like tomatoes and peppers won’t germinate unless the soil temperature is warm enough, so it’s important to keep your seed tray somewhere with some radiant heat, like on top of your fridge.
If you’re willing to make an investment however, you can purchase a special heat mat just for germinating seeds, that you’ll be able to use over and over again. A seedling heat mat will keep your seed trays between 10 and 20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature of the room they’re in, ensuring that they stay warm without getting scorched or drying out too quickly. A heat mat may even be a necessity if temperatures tend to be low in the room where you’ll keep the seeds. I purchased this 20″x20″ heat mat, which fit perfectly under my two seed trays.
As for the moisture element, you need to keep your planting moist, but not soggy. You’ll know it’s time to water when the moss or mix appears light and dry on the surface of your container, rather than dark and damp.
It’s best at this stage to water from the bottom rather than the top, since the force of the water could wash away your shallow seeds. Pour water directly into the tray until the water level reaches about 1/3 of the way up your containers, and let them absorb the water for 30 minutes or so. After that, you want to drain out the excess water than remains by tipping it out into a bucket or sink.
Other than keeping your plants watered, all that’s left to do is wait. Depending on your plants, it should take 1 to 2 weeks for them to germinate. As soon as you see little green sprouts, uncover your tray to allow for proper air circulation, and give those babies some light!
When our seeds start sprouting (fingers crossed!) I’ll post about all the stuff that comes next, including lighting setups, seedling care, and transplanting. Until then, happy planting! :-)