Many gardeners wait to direct sow their seeds after the soil warms up and dries out. If they need bedding plants, they depend on garden stores to have the right seedlings at the right time. But maybe you want to find ways to maximize your plot and grow even more fresh food. Starting seeds indoors is one way you can get the most out of both your garden space and the local growing season.
Why Start Seeds Indoors?
Give long season and heat-loving plants plenty of time to mature
Most years, peppers aren’t going to be happy outdoors in our climate until the last week of May or the beginning of June. If you wait until then to sow the seeds, your peppers won’t have a long enough season to set fruit before the daylight weakens and the nights cool down. Instead, start them indoors to give them two to three extra months of “summer.” Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other sun-loving plants will all produce more if you give them a head start.
Maximize the space in your garden with succession planting
Bedding plants started indoors require from four weeks (squash and cucumbers) to ten weeks (tomatoes) to twelve weeks (peppers) before you plant them out. That is a long time to leave an empty space in your garden. Why not let a quick growing, cool weather crop borrow that spot? Radishes, spinach, lettuce and many other greens can be harvested and eaten while you are waiting for your bedding plants to size up.
Grow exactly the varieties you want
Do you feel frustrated when you’re trying to choose from bedding plants that are only labeled as “tomato,” “sweet pepper,” “hot pepper,” “cauliflower”? Most of us want more information about plants that are going to take up a sizeable amount of space and time in our gardens. With a seed catalog, you can find exactly what you want and make your choices based on variety, days to maturity, taste, appearance and hybrid / heirloom / organic / open pollinated.
Grow bedding plants from your own seeds
Saving your own seed is one stepping stone on the path to food security. If you’ve carefully chosen heirloom or open pollinated varieties in order to save your own seed, it follows that you have to grow the bedding plants yourself.
Want to save seeds? Read this article to see how you can get started.
What you need to start seeds indoors
Ideally, find a warm spot for your seeds to germinate. They will do best in a temperature of 21°C (70°F). Most seeds don’t need light while they are germinating so if necessary you can start them in a warm place that doesn’t have great light, and then move them to a window or your grow light once the first leaves (cotyledon) appear.
Strong light source
A bright window could provide enough light, but many gardeners have to depend on special grow lights, which mimic the spectrum of light from the sun. Sunblaster T5 or Monios LED are good choices. Plants that don’t get enough full spectrum light are pale, leggy and have weak stems.
Seed starting mix
A combination of perlite, vermiculite and finely sifted organic compost or soil will provide a fluffy growing medium that allows the roots plenty of air. Potting soil is not recommended because it is so dense. Also, the fertilizer in some potting soils can interfere with germination. Everything the plant needs for its first couple of weeks is in the seed itself. You have only to add water and the sunlight that will green up its leaves.
Fill your starter pots to half an inch from the top with the starting mix. Tamp lightly with the bottom of another pot. Gently moisten with water from a spray bottle, but be sure you do not drown the mix. Label the pots with the variety and date – wooden craft sticks work well for this. Then place your seeds in each pot. You can sow fresh seed at one per pot, but if you have some older seed, you might want to spread out two to four in a pot and later cut off all but the healthiest seedling. Spray gently again. Cover with another layer of mix. As a rule of thumb, cover the seeds two to three times their thickness. Gently spray once more so the mix is moist but not wet. Put in a warm place to germinate.
Now wait patiently. Spray often enough to keep the starting mix barely damp. Before long, you’ll see your future garden growing right before your eyes.
Karen is past president of the Abbotsford Community Garden Society, where she has been a member since 2010 and served on the board of directors for eight years. A student of organic gardening all her life, she is an advocate for local, sustainable food systems and ecologically responsible lifestyles.