Professionals use heated rooms, mats and moisture trays in order to create the ideal environment for starting seeds. You can mimic this type of setting quite easily by copying a few of their techniques.
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune listed 15 important steps to keep in mind when starting seeds. Here they are.
1. Pick something easy. Everybody loves tomatoes, but try cabbage and kale because they can be transplanted outdoors much earlier. There's little point in starting the same plants you can buy at garden centers, so check through seed catalogs and "get something that's special," she says. Beginners should use freshly bought seed. Plant just a few things, but sow plenty of each so you have a cushion.
2. Choose containers: Anything shallow that holds soil will do -- flats and six-packs saved from last year's annuals, plastic cups, yogurt containers, homemade newspaper pots, clamshell plastic containers from the salad bar. To save space, start seeds in egg cartons after germination, you'll transplant the sprouts into something larger. You will need to place the containers on something that holds water (think cookie sheet, boot tray, storage container lid). Poke ample drainage holes in each pot's bottom (unless you're using newspaper pots). Wash the pots and disinfect them by soaking them for 10 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 5 gallons of water.
3. Use good soil A new bag of sterile potting mix, ideally a brand labeled organic.
4. Read directions. The seed packet will tell you how deep to plant the seeds or whether to lay them on top of the soil, and how long the plants will take to germinate. It also will tell you when to sow, in terms of weeks before the date of the last frost (the earliest most plants can be moved outdoors). Conventionally, the last frost date ranges from April to June depending on the part of the country you live.
5. Fill the pots. Get the potting mix about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Level soil to the top of the container and then gently tap it on the counter three times.
6. Sow seed. Use a pencil or chopstick to poke the right size hole, if needed, and to gently nudge soil over the seed.
7. Hold in moisture. Mist surface of the soil gently with water, making sure not to disturb the seed, and cover with a plastic bag or a dry cleaner bag to hold in moisture. Or simply close the lid of the clamshell or egg carton.
8. Label seedlings. Use a permanent marker, labeling the type of plant, variety and date.
9. Keep seeds warm and moist until they germinate. Favorite warm spots are above (not directly on) a radiator, on top of the refrigerator or in the laundry room. Seeds sown on top of soil need light to germinate, but seeds planted deeper don't. In 3 to 10 days -- check daily -- most plants will put out cotyledons, little smooth things that look like leaves. Immediately remove the cover so air circulates.
Check the seedlings frequently; you want the soil to stay evenly moist, but never sopping. The best method is bottom watering. Pour water into the tray so it wicks up into the soil through the drainage holes.
10. Find the light. Seedlings need all-day light. If you have a very sunny window, it might do, but window light alone may produce spindly plants. For stronger, sturdier plants, provide 12 to 14 hours of artificial light such as a two-tube fluorescent shop light on a lamp timer. Place lights within a foot or so of the plants.
11. Transplant. If you sowed in tiny containers, transplant the seedlings when they have their first set of true leaves. (They look like miniature leaves of that plant and often are a little fuzzy.) Use a chopstick or pencil to gently tease the delicate stalk and roots up out of the soil (don't pull) and settle it into the soil of the larger pot. Thin the plants so you have one strong seedling per pot.
12. Room to breathe. Good air circulation is key to preventing the evil fungal disease called damping off. A gentle breeze from an electric fan may help.
13. Fertilize lightly. Once a week, use just a bit of an organic fertilizer labeled for seed starting (ask at a good garden center). Fish emulsion and seaweed work well for though they are fragrant; worm tea, such as Terracycle, also is good.
14. Harden off. Before you plant the seedlings out in the garden, gradually accustom them to the outdoors over several days. You can use a plastic-film greenhouse; you could use a cold frame, or just move the plants outdoors for a few more hours each day.
15. Plant them. Make sure you have the site the plants need (plenty of sun for vegetables, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter for just about everything). Remove the transplants from their pots gently without yanking on the stems and settle them in the soil at the recommended spacing (see seed packet).
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