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Starting seeds indoors

One of the best diversions to overcome wintertime doldrums is to start trays of garden seeds indoors. Here in the Missouri Ozarks, now is a good time to get growing with all those vegetables that should be started 6-8 weeks before the last frost.

Plants that require a longer growing season, such as Roselle or artichokes, should’ve been started in January or even December. Still, there is plenty of time in mid-February for tomatoes, peppers, Swiss chard, New Zealand spinach and many flowers. Large, fast-growing plants, such as castor beans, should not be started until 3-4 weeks before the last frost or they will outgrow their pots before the soil warms outdoors. And, other vegetables that can be started indoors, such as Bloomsdale spinach or any variety of lettuce, in my opinion, do best when sowed directly in the garden.

If you are fortunate enough to have large sunny windows, starting seeds indoors is not difficult.  However, many of us must adapt to our unique window situations the best we can by reflecting light onto the seed trays. Hotbeds and window boxes are another option. So, too, are artificial grow-lights, although we try to live as much as possible without relying on electricity.

This week, I toted my big storage tub of seeds from the basement, gathered every conceivable seed tray and rearranged the house to accommodate my growing area.  Since the south-facing window is standard-sized (about 2 feet wide), I hung a large, old dresser mirror in the corner near the window to shine the coveted light where I need it. Otherwise, the result is weak, spindly seedlings that flop over and die when transplanted or subjected to their first windy day.


Mirrors help reflect light onto seed trays
Mirrors help reflect light onto seed trays



Supplies needed

Begin by gathering your supplies, which includes durable markers of some sort. I happen to have a huge stash of tongue depressors that work well for identifying what I planted in each tray. Do not make the same mistake I once did by using toothpicks and masking tape as flags.  After several weeks of watering, the tape fell off or the penciled numbers faded.

Sort your seeds according to growing-season requirements.  Hopefully, you are starting with fresh, healthy seed that will yield hardy plants.  Remember, too, to grow what you eat.  If you don’t like rutabagas, don’t take up precious garden space planting them.  But, just for fun, save yourself a little room to experiment with new varieties.

Most of my seed trays were free for the asking from local grocery stores – once I learned the stores just throw them out after selling the plants that were shipped in them. Other good, free seed-starting trays include used food containers (tofu, milk, store-bought produce and eggs).  If you use paper egg cartons, be sure to keep them well watered as the cardboard acts as a wick, quickly drying the soil. Another great free find for me were the disposable food trays from the local senior citizens’ center. It’s amazing what we throw away in this country.

Soil matters

I do not buy soil to start my seeds, although it is much simpler to do so. I use soil and compost from my garden, which will, of course, contain other seeds and bugs. I just pick those out as they emerge. Before bringing garden soil indoors, I sift it to eliminate larger twigs, soil clods and rocks by shaking it through an old wire wastebasket. I realize my technique may not be ideal for everyone. In fact, “damping-off” disease caused by organisms in the soil can kill seedlings, although this has not been an issue here. If using garden soil, it can first be baked (sterilized) to kill unwanted seeds, bugs and disease organisms. If the soil gets too hot (above 180 degrees), however, toxins can be released into it and good bacteria is killed. Baking also is messy and takes extra time (about 1-1/2 hours per cake pan of dirt). Other growing mediums include ready-to-use containers, peat pots and vermiculite.  It is all a matter of choice, and like most gardening techniques, is learned by trial and error, as everyone’s soil, climate and environment differ vastly.

Write this down

For years, I have kept gardening journals, recording planting dates, rainfall amounts, frosts and seed varieties. I recommend a sturdy notebook with stiff covers or even a loose-leaf binder, as you’ll surely be bringing your notebook with you to the garden.  You’ll find that your notebook is not only valuable in the current growing season, but in subsequent years as you decide what to plant, when and where. Trust me, you will not remember next year which varieties of squash you planted if you do not write them down now.

A sturdy notebook is a valuable tool from season to season
A sturdy notebook is a valuable tool from season to season

To speed up germination, soak your seeds in warm water for at least a couple of hours before planting. Larger seeds with hard covers, such as nasturtium, morning glory and Swiss chard, can be soaked overnight. Soaking tiny seeds such as amaranth and kale makes them very difficult to handle, but if you don’t mind wasting some seed, you will have sprouts days ahead of dry-planted seeds.

Keep the seeds evenly moist once planted. A spray bottle works best for this. If you don’t have an entire table full of seed trays, you can slip each tray into a plastic bag to retain moisture. Plastic coverings must be removed once the seeds sprout, however, or you will cook your delicate seedlings. As the plants grow, you can switch to using a watering can with a small spout, not one that will flood the plants and erode the soil. Rainwater is best and should be brought in and allowed to warm to room temperature. Just like humans, plants do not like a blast of ice water when sunbathing.


A spray bottle works best for watering seeds until the plants are an inch or so tall
A spray bottle works best for watering seeds until the plants are an inch or so tall




Sunshine on my foliage

When the sprouts begin emerging, they should have at least 12 hours of direct sunlight daily. This is not always possible, of course, so do the best you can to ensure your plants get as much sunlight as possible.


Once emerged, seedlings do best with 12 hours or sunlight daily
Once emerged, seedlings do best with 12 hours or sunlight daily

About two weeks before it’s time to set your beautiful, thriving seedlings into the garden, begin “hardening” them by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions. I like to put my pots into wagons so I can easily wheel them from the porch (where they sleep at night) to the yard for longer and longer periods of direct sunshine. On very windy days, protect the plants from being whipped about or leave them inside.  A greenhouse is another great halfway house for a few weeks before transplanting.

Disturb the plant roots as little as possible when transplanting into a hole in the garden.  An ordinary teaspoon makes a handy seedling scoop.  Wetting the potting soil also will allow the plant to slip out with less disruption. Firm the soil around the root ball and spot water the transplant to settle the soil and remove any air pockets.

While your garden grows, record all your successes and failures in your notebook. As the season progresses, you will likely face some plant diseases, drought, pests, weeds and storms. But, the opportunities for experimentation and success abound.  The pleasure of performing invigorating gardening chores on beautiful summer mornings as you care for and harvest your own organic, tasty, nutritious vegetables will be your reward. 

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