Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
February, 2008
Regional Report

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These delicate onion seedlings will soon be stout and sturdy under lights.

Ready, Set, Start Those Seeds!

Why do we want to start seeds indoors for the vegetable garden? First and foremost, it gives us a chance to grow unusual varieties that we wouldn't necessarily find available in local garden centers. Couple that with a chance to give long-season crops plenty of time to bear, and to give cool-season crops the chance to grow and flourish before the heat of summer. Now we have perfect reasons to start seeds indoors.

Purchase Seeds
It's important to purchase high-quality seeds, whether from racks in the garden store or by mail. When you bring the seeds home, keep them in a cool dry place until you are ready to use them.

Next, gather your materials. You will need seed-starting mix, containers, labels, a marker, and your seeds. You can also purchase a kit containing all the necessary equipment if you choose.

Seed-Starting Mix
The medium in which you grow your seeds needs to have a good balance between water retention and drainage, and needs to be sterile. You can mix your own, but purchasing ready-made starting mix will save time and assure sterility. Seed-starting mix is very fine textured, and transplanting mix, which you will use later, is coarser and retains more nutrients.

The two requirements are that the containers be clean and have drainage. Options range from plastic flats to compressed peat pots to plastic cell pots, paper pots, and soil blocks. This is a great time to recycle aluminum trays, egg cartons, and milk jugs from the kitchen.

Plant Your Seeds
To get started, moisten the planting mix with warm water and fill your containers to the rim. Gently firm the soil and then place seeds at the depth recommended on the seed packets. Sprinkle with milled sphagnum moss, firm it gently, and then spritz carefully to avoid washing away the moss and seeds. Cover pots with a plastic or glass top.

Set the pots or flats someplace warm like the top of the refrigerator or a heat mat, and check daily for germination. Remove the cover if there's too much condensation building inside. The seeds don't need to be under lights while germinating, but the minute the seedlings poke through, remove the cover and move them into a cool spot under artificial lights.

Artificial Lighting
A sunny window is okay for a short time, but for consistent results you should invest in inexpensive shop lights, load them with one warm-white and one cool-white bulb, and put them on a timer for 12 to 18 hours of light. As the seedlings grow, keep the lights always 2 to 4 inches from them. This is easy to do by suspending the lights on chains and using S-hooks to raise and lower them.

Grow Them On
For the next few weeks, keep the soil moist and fertilize every two weeks with half-strength fertilizer, and be ready to transplant into individual or larger pots a few weeks down the road. If necessary, thin the seedlings so that only one strong one is in each pot. It won't be long before you are ready to consult your plant-out schedule, harden them off, and move them into the sunny garden.

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