When the Weather is So So, Sow Sow!

By Steffie Littlefield

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2008 issue)

a picture of young seedlings in traysLet It Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!!!! When the weather outside is frightful, I still have my seeds, seed starting mix and fluorescent lights to keep me warm. The next best thing to gardening outside is gardening inside. I love to dream about the new spring garden while I plant my little seeds and tend my sprouts. Starting seeds indoors is fun, economical, and simple enough to be kid friendly.

Buying seeds and planning what to plant for the coming spring is really fun. Shop your local garden centers for unusual varieties of herbs and vegetables, the newest cutting flowers or edible sprouts. Starting your own seeds allows you to plant truly unique vegetables like white egg plants, heirloom tomatoes, or specialty Italian beans. Maybe you are just a basil lover and never have enough, start a whole tray full yourself, it’s very easy.

With everyone eating more organic products, starting your own herbs and vegetables from certified organic seeds is a very economical way to bring healthy foods to your table. Want the health benefits of fresh sprouts? Get a seed sprouting kit and enjoy alfalfa, beet, mung bean, sunflower or wheat sprouts every day. This is a really great kid project when winter weather keeps you inside. Children love to watch seeds become sprouts and then taste them in salads or sandwiches.

Getting Started

To grow plants for my garden I use 6-packs trays in holeless trays with a clear dome and a sterile seed starting mix. You may choose to recycle your plastic egg cartons as seed starting trays or buy plantable pots. Just be sure your containers are sterile by washing them in bleach before filling with the seed starting mix.

The process of germinating seeds and growing seedling plants indoors is fairly simple. Start with clean containers and a seed starting mix. Pre-wet the mix to make it easier to handle and fill the trays nearly to the top. Place 1-3 seeds on the surface and press into the soil, cover lightly with additional soil, mist with water and cover with a clear top. Covering the container will keep the soil and therefore seeds evenly moist while they are germinating. Place the container in a location where air temperature will remain above 70°F until the seeds germinate.

As the new leaves emerge check the soil moisture level and remove the covering. At this point good air circulation and adequate light are as critical as moisture. I use a small fan at a low speed in the room with the seedlings and keep the new plants within 6 inches of my light source. If using a sunny window, rotate the plants every morning and evening to keep them from bending over, and add an extra light on the inside of the room to insure strong stocky growth rather than weak leggy stretched seedlings. Please read the instructions on the individual seed packets for any special conditions or treatments that will optimize your seedlings growth and development into plants.

After the second set of leaves has grown, you should fertilize with a half strength dilution of your favorite indoor plant food. Remember to try organic fertilizer if your goal is to grow organic plants for your vegetable or herb garden. When your thriving young plants seem to dry out every day, it is time to replant them into larger pots.

As the days become longer and warmer you can start to acclimate your new plants to the outdoors. Take them outside for only a few hours at a time at first, working up to a half day by the end of the first week. Do not leave them out over night until temperatures are above 60°F at night. Check with your individual seed packet before planting into the garden. Some varieties love to grow in cooler soil temperatures, but others will stop growing and may even decline if the garden soil is not warm enough.

Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer at Garden Heights Nursery. She has degrees from St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Southeast Missouri State and is a member of Gateway Professional Horticultural Association and president of Horticulture Co-op of Metropolitan St. Louis. You can also find out about her family vineyard and event venue at www.edg-clif.com.