Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
January, 2010
Regional Report

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Get ready to browse for seeds you'd like to start indoors.

How to Get Started with Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds indoors is one of the best cures for late winter cabin fever and it motivates me to think about trying something new in the garden. With all those garden magazines piling up on my desk, I'm tempted to try a few new varieties that are often not available locally. It's time to get set up for starting some seeds indoors.

Though it would be nice to have a greenhouse, I'll make do with my home environment to start my seeds. Bright, high-quality light is the key to success. A south-facing window will work nicely. Find a spot with enough space to accommodate a work table or two, fluorescent lights, heat mats, seed starting trays, and containers. Seed starting takes minimal effort, but the basics never change. Here are some of my time-tested tips:

For best germination, use a special, soilless mixture just for seed starting. Most of the commercial mixes are a blend of milled sphagnum peat moss, perlite (heated volcanic rock to create pore space), and vermiculite (mica-like material to expand and retain moisture). Some may contain compost or a fertilizer, enough to keep the seedlings growing for a few weeks. Moisten the mixture with warm water before you use it. It should be evenly moist but not dripping wet (you shouldn't be able to squeeze any water out of a handful of the soilless mix).

Fill a clean container with dampened seed starting mixture. You can use flat, shallow seed starting trays, but you can be creative with containers. Recyclable plastic containers including yogurt cups, margarine containers, and egg cartons are just a few items I've used. Make sure they have some drainage holes punctured in the bottom. Press the seed mix down as you fill the containers and gently tamp it down to level and firm the surface. Fill the container to within a half-inch of the rim. It's a good idea to water the mix again before sowing seeds so they won't be washed around by a stream of water applied after sowing.

The number one reason seeds don't germinate well is that they are planted too deeply. So carefully read the seed packet and follow the instructions. If the seeds are extremely tiny, mix them with a little sand or vermiculite to make it easier to sow them thinly. Don't cover the seeds too deeply. Some seeds need light to germinate and shouldn't be covered at all (this will be indicated on the seed packet). On a plant label write down the variety and the sowing date, and stick it into or staple to the container.

Create a mini-greenhouse so that the seeds have warmth and constant, even moisture to germinate. Covering the container or tray with its plastic cover, or a sheet of plastic food wrap, acrylic, or sheet of glass. Don't seal it too tightly as this can cut off all air circulation and molds may develop on the surface of the mixture. Air circulation discourages diseases like damping-off and other fungus problems. If you use plastic wrap, lift it off part of the day to let air in. Seeds that need darkness to germinate can be covered with a sheet of newspaper, black plastic, or fabric to cut out the light. If they need light to germinate, set the container in full light, but not direct sun.

Keep the seed starting mixture moist, but not soggy. When it becomes dry to the touch, mist it immediately or set the container in a pan of warm water. Here is where bottom watering is best as it won't cause the seeds to wash or splash around or encourage diseases.

The seed growing area should be warm and I prefer to use a heat mat to keep the temperature around 70 degrees F. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the covers and set them where they get good light or under fluorescent lights placed 2 inches above the seedlings. Give the seedlings at least ten hours of light every day; 12 hours is even better. A light rigged with an automatic timer is ideal.

The rest is up to you to thin and transplant as needed. In the long run, once you get hooked, you, like me, will be starting seeds every year to curb the symptoms of cabin fever and try growing something new.

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