For many gardeners, the easiest way to grow vegetables and annuals is to start with seedlings. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, for example, grow slowly from seed and often won’t mature before the first frost if planted from seed in the garden. Annuals planted from seed sown outdoors may not bloom until late summer, and few of us want to wait so long for flowers.
Nurseries and garden centers offer many choices of vegetable, herb and annual plants, but once you’ve gained some gardening experience, you’ll likely want to start your own. Starting plants from seed indoors is not difficult and you’ll save a lot of money. Seeds are usually available in a greater variety than seedlings, as well, especially if you buy from a catalog or online source.
To start seeds indoors, you’ll need containers, a lightweight potting medium and plenty of warmth and moisture. Seeds vary in germination and growing time, but plant most seeds six to eight weeks before you want to plant them outdoors. Stock up on some seeds and let’s get started!
Although any container will work, plastic flats with small individual cells work best for starting seeds. Some people prefer peat pots that can be planted directly in the ground. These are more expensive than plastic trays, and can’t be re-used. However, they work well for crops that don’t transplant well, such as cucumbers and pumpkins.
Buy a high-quality, lightweight seedstarting medium made from a combination of perlite and vermiculite. You may be tempted to use ordinary garden soil, but starting mediums work much better because they are sterile (so young seedlings are less likely to encounter plant diseases) and lightweight (allowing quick germination).
Once you’ve obtained your supplies, fill the trays with the starting medium. Moisten the soil slightly with a spray bottle filled with water and plant the seeds according to package directions. Small seeds may need only a light dusting of soil to germinate. Plant larger seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, ¼ to ½ inch deep.
Spray the starting medium again if it is dry to moisten it. Spray as needed to keep it evenly moist, but not soggy. If the soil dries out, the seeds won’t germinate; if it is too wet, the seeds may rot. Cover the seed trays with a sheet of plastic wrap and place them in a warm location, such as the top of the refrigerator or radiator. Most seeds germinate best at soil temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, although a few, such as spinach or poppies, prefer cooler temperatures. Monitor soil moisture daily.
Remove the plastic wrap once the seedlings emerge and place the trays in a sunny location. Most seedlings prefer 10+ hours of direct sunlight, so if you don’t have a south-facing window, consider using grow lights to supplement the natural light. Water them regularly so the soil doesn’t dry out. Plant the seedlings once they stand 2 to 3 inches high and outdoor temperatures are suitable for the particular plants you are growing. Most annuals and vegetables don’t tolerate frost and should be planted at least two weeks after the average last frost date.