Starting Seeds Indoors for Spring Planting

Who doesn’t love to walk into the garden and pick a summer ripened juicy tomato to eat off the vine or slice up later with basil and olive oil? It’s almost a rite of summer for gardeners. Many summer vegetables that love heat such as tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers can be started indoors as seeds in late March to mid April to get a head start on the season. Starting seeds indoors is easy, fun, and you get to watch your creation from seed to plant to your dinner plate. It’s also an economical way to plant exactly what you want to grow and eat.

More significantly, in the Northeast where the growing season is not as long as we would like it to be, starting seeds inside gives a jump on the season so your transplants are ready to go out in the garden in May. Starting seeds indoors is almost required as planting them outside at the end of May means they won’t be ready to harvest until the first frost! Unless you can find a nursery that sells organic plants, the only way to grow an organic vegetable is to buy the organic seed and plant it yourself. I order my organic seeds from Johnny’s of Maine and High Mowing of Vermont. The latter company sells only organic seeds; the former sells organic and conventional. They both have large selections of vegetables, flowers and garden amendments. Seeds of Change also sells organic seeds as well as gear to start with such as seed starting trays, heating mats, and grow lights.

This is what you need to get started:

At least 10 plastic containers that strawberries are packed in. A large bag of special seed starting soil (Johnny’s has it) Post it labels A large plastic tray with shallow sides A sunny preferably south facing window

Note: if you don’t have strawberry containers, you can use paper cups with holes punched in the bottom for drainage.

Here is what you do with your materials:

Spread the soil in a large tray and moisten with water so it’s damp but not sopping wet Fill the plastic containers with the damp soil and keep it fluffy not tamped down Put about 6-7 seeds of your desired vegetable in the container spread out. Sprinkle soil on top of the seeds just to cover. Close the top of the container to create a mini greenhouse to expedite germination. If you want to speed up the germination, you can buy heating mats especially made for this purpose. Do not put the plastic containers directly on the mat but use a plastic tray in between. I use my heating mat at night and keep it off during the day. They will need good light to germinate successfully; if they don’t get enough light, they are susceptible to fungus. If you don’t have a sunny window, you can buy special grow lights. I put a post-it on the side of each container labeling what it is.

Once you are set up, you do need to be conscientious about checking the soil every day for dryness. If the seeds dry out, they will not germinate. All the nutrition it needs is in the seed. Water lightly — do not drown the little seeds.

Once the seed has pushed through the soil, remove the cover. When it has outgrown the container and has sent up a set of leaves, you can gently take it out with a spoon and transplant it to a peat pot (which will disintegrate into the ground) or one of those plastic containers from the nursery that flowers come in. After about three weeks when it has grown into a mini plant, it will need a boost from you as it will have used up all the nutrition that was in the seed. I like using Fish Emulsion by Neptune’s Harvest diluted in water.

Once the seeds have sprouted, you can keep the room a little cooler.

When the end of May comes and the weather has been warm, you can think about putting the seedlings in the garden. However to avoid shock, you must do a “hardening off” process. This involves packing them up in a tray and taking them for a field trip in the great outdoors to get used to natural light and air. Keep them on the back porch for a few hours a day gradually moving them into the sunlight and be sure to take them in at night. After about a week of this, and when nighttime temperatures are at least 50 degrees for a week, you can plant them in the ground or in large prepared pots. You will need garden markers to indicate which plant it is that you insert in the pot or the ground. Water the holes in the garden or pots before putting them in. Be aware that in our eagerness to get our veggies planted outside, we must check in with the weather forecast as it is heartbreaking for a sudden unexpected frost to kill off a tender transplant that you have nurtured for two months.

When you plant tomatoes in the ground or a pot, pinch off the bottom leaves and be sure to do that all summer. They don’t like their feet too wet or their leaves dragging on the ground.

Anyone can stick a transplant in the ground but planting a seed and helping it grow to create an array of organic homegrown food is quite satisfying! So enjoy your garden and grow!

For further information or help with setting up your garden, please contact Priscilla Warshowsky Priscilla is a Certified Master Gardener and her mother, Ruth Shaw Ernst, was a published author of two books on organic gardening.

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