Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2009
Regional Report

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One of the best way to ensure seed-starting success is with supplemental lighting.

Is Starting Seeds Indoors for You?

Ah, the temptation of starting seeds early indoors. Of having the first tomato. Of growing those rare, unusual, or little-known varieties. Of saving money. Whoa, wait a minute here. Get over that fantasy right now. Yes, in some circumstances you might, but don't let that be your main motivation. To grow healthy, flourishing transplants is no mean feat. Be ready to invest in the equipment and supplies that gives you the best chance for success as well as the time involved in starting seeds indoors and caring for the subsequent plants. That said, starting seeds indoors is tremendously satisfying.

Choose Wisely
First of all then, think smart about your time and money, including how many transplants you actually need for your garden, your desire for the unusual, what is available locally, and the difficulty of starting specific plants, plus other criteria that are important to you. For instance, in my area, there is a nursery that offers over a hundred different heirloom tomato varieties. The plants aren't cheap, but if I only want one plant of certain varieties, it makes sense to buy them as transplants rather than purchasing an entire pack of seeds. Another example is herbs. Some herbs, like thyme, have slow and difficult germination and growth. Consider buying those, but starting the easy ones, like basil, yourself.

Equipment and Supplies
Yes, it is possible to start seeds in discarded egg cartons using the warmth of the top of the refrigerator or a heating pad, but not if you want the best possible transplants. My theory is that if you're going to do something, do it right. Invest in a seedling heat mat. It safely does the job it was designed to do, which is provide bottom heat to pots or flats. This bottom heat will make an amazing amount of difference in how quickly seeds germinate. Heat mats come in a range of sizes, but the smallest one, which is just right for one standard flat, is a good beginning. If money is no object and you're really into plant propagation, get a larger one and a heat-mat thermostat. There will be some who disagree, but I like to move flats off of the heat mat once seeds germinate. Combining a heat mat with a plastic dome cover maintains humidity, which helps germination, but if set in a place that gets warming sun, you'll end up with cooked seeds.

Next is the subject of containers and seed-starting mixes, and there are at least a zillion right answers. Or, in other words, stores and catalogs offer a lot of choices. For the do-it-yourselfer, consider the paper pot maker. A self-watering seedling system will be just the ticket if you have trouble remembering to check seedlings every day for moisture. For best success, choose a sterile potting mix that is specifically designed for seed starting, or from among the pre-formed individual gizmos for seed starting.

Some of these seed-starting mixes and gizmos contain fertilizer and some do not. There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for fertilizing, unfortunately, but it's a good idea to start using a water-soluble fertilizer several weeks after seeds germinate, continuing until they're transplanted into the garden. Once seedlings get two to four sets of true leaves, they should be transplanted into larger pots and maintained until it's the right time to plant into the garden.

Give 'Em Some Light
Okay, your seeds have sprouted, and they're now in that proverbial window with bright light. In no time it seems like they 12 inches tall, with few leaves, and flopping over. The bottom line is that the difference in the amount of light outdoors versus indoors is more appreciable than we realize. Again, I know there are people who are successful using just window light, but in most instances, investing in some fluorescent lights will make a huge amount of difference in the degree of success. For years, the inexpensive route was to use a 4-foot utility fixture fitted with one each of warm-white and cool-white tubes designated T12. If you had money to burn, you used special T12 bulbs with increased light output. Nowadays, there are also T8 and T5 bulbs, which are more energy efficient and have increased light output. Unfortunately, these require fixtures specifically designed for them, and they're pricey. Do what fits your pocketbook. The bottom line, though, with any of these fixtures is to have the lights adjustable. Keep them just a few inches above your young seedlings and transplants, raising the light as the plants grow.

If you're wanting more details about how and when to start seeds indoors, the Cooperative Extension Service in most states have free publications. Often, these are available online, such as the one from Kentucky at

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