Right now I am looking out my window at a snowstorm. It is going to drop about 25 cm of snow, but believe me it is not too early to be thinking about spring and planting. Here in zone 5, it is just about time to start seeds indoors.
Let's pause here. If you haven't purchased your seeds yet, you need to do that right now. Remember the toilet paper crisis we had last year? Well, it's still like that for seeds. Many of the larger seed companies are so inundated with orders that they have paused sales or are expecting several weeks processing times. Try a smaller local company. Check Etsy. If lockdown is done in your area, hit the garden center. Even Facebook Marketplace or some of the gardening groups can be helpful.
Ok. You have your seeds? Good. Now we can talk. You could simply sprinkle your seeds in the ground sometime in April and watch what comes up. But if you want to make the most of the growing season, starting seeds indoors is the way to go.
This can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Because we are a flower farm, we start A LOT of seeds indoors. On top of that we grow veggies too. So it turns into some kind of crazy ultimate Tetris trying to fit in enough trays and shelves and heat mats and lights into our work room.
Don't let things overwhelm you. Just start small. Your set-up can be as simple as a tray of seeds on top of your fridge (for warmth) with an LED strip light. Follow these steps and you will be a seed starting master in no time!
You want to give your plants a head start on the growing season without having them take up too much space because they have gotten so big. This is probably the trickiest part of starting seeds indoors. Check the package, it will usually say something like "Plant indoors six to eight weeks before last frost" or if the package does not provide growing info hop onto Google. While you're looking things up, find out what your last frost date is. Try searching the Farmer's Almanac.
You may even find that that particular plant does not benefit from starting indoors at all, in which case it will say something like "Direct seed"
2) Find the Right Containers:
You can start your seedlings in just about anything as long as it's 2-3" deep and has drainage holes. We prefer seed starting trays for consistent water and heat distribution, but yoghurt cups and similar containers do a wonderful job as well.
3) Choosing and Preparing the Right Soil:
You can of course use dirt from your yard, but to give your seeds the best chance of flourishing we prefer a potting soil that's specifically formulated for seedlings. Using a fresh, sterile mix ensures healthy, disease-free seedlings.
To fill your trays or containers, first moisten the soil in a bucket or bowl. You want it moist, not gloppy. This allows you to pack the containers firmly without having to worry about too much settling later.
As most seedling soil mixes don't have much in the way of nutrients, you will need to apply a liquid fertilizer a few weeks after your seeds germinate, continuing until you transplant.
Your seed packet will tell you how deep to plant. Some of the smaller seeds can even be sprinkled right on the soils surface.
Make a couple of little divots in each cell or pot and drop in 2 seeds then cover with soil. If both seeds germinate, simply snip the smaller of the 2.
Moisten the seeds without sending them flying and cover them with a fitted plastic dome if you have one. This is optional, but can help speed up germination and keeps seeds moist. At the first sign of green, remove them.
5) "Feed me, Seymour":
Your growing seedlings need regular watering and feeding. We prefer to bottom water, meaning that our seedlings are grown in cells with holes in the bottom allow the required moisture be pulled up as needed. These sit in a larger non-perforated tray that we pour the water into. This approach is great for delicate seedlings and avoiding excessive moisture.
If not bottom watering, simply use a mister. You want to keep the soil moist, not soggy. Let it dry a little between waterings.
You want to be sure to feed your seedlings a liquid fertilizer. Different plants have different requirements, so be sure to read the label and make sure that it is meant for the type of seed you are growing.
6) Lights! Action! Heat?
Seeds will need enough light to grow. If you have a south-facing window, you can grow your seedlings there, otherwise you will need lights. Simply rotate your plants regularly so they don't all grow on an angle.
Unless you are growing hundreds of trays, don't worry about getting anything fancy. A simple shop light will do the trick. The secret here, is making sure that your light is a few inches above the seedlings. If too far away, the seedlings will put all their energy into reaching the light. They will be skinny and weak. Too close and you can burn the leaves. Adjust your light's height as your plants grow to ensure healthy growth.
Aim for 15 hours of light a day. No need to run lights 24/7, like us your seedlings need down time too.
The other secret to strong resilient plants? Fans. A little air movement helps your seedlings build up strength and prevents disease.
Heat Mats aren't necessary to start all seeds, but can be for some. Again, your seed packet is a great source of info here as they will often indicate what temperature the soil needs to be for the seeds to germinate. If you are starting your seeds in your home, they will likely bee warm enough to start with no problem.
If your seeds require warmer temperatures to germinate, you may want to consider heat mats. How many are you growing? Do you have a warmer spot in your house? The top of the fridge and laundry rooms tend to be pretty toasty. If you really can't find a good spot, check your favourite retailer for heat mats. They can be simple plug and go or fancy with temperature dials and timers. You are only using these for a month or so out of the year, so there's no need to break the bank.
7) Get hard!
Ready to plant your beautiful seedlings outside? Hang on a minute. You've got to take this part slow. Even with the fan, your seedlings have been pretty sheltered and too much of a shock now could kill them ruining all your hard work. You have to ease them into the change, this is called "Hardening Off"
About a week before you are ready to plant these babies outdoors, put them into a sheltered spot for a few hours. You want partial sun and not too windy. Bring them in overnight. Keep an eye on the forecast for any big temperature dips and maybe keep them inside if you think you need to. Over the week, expose them to more sun and wind until they are ready for the big scary outside world.
That's it! If you follow these steps, you should find yourself with some beautiful seedlings ready for your garden in a few weeks.
Do you have any seed starting tips or tricks? Share them below!
If you have any questions, please reach out.