seedling.pngQ: How hard is it to start seeds indoors? I’d like to try it but I heard it could get expensive.

A: There are a variety of ways to start seeds indoors, including fluorescent grow lights, special plant stands, and seed starting kits. But, being a frugal gardener, I’ve found cheaper methods of starting seeds indoors with good results.

Most gardeners will tell you there is a certain thrill of getting a jump on spring especially in a winter as long as this one. And watching tiny specks of seeds sprout is still a miracle to me.

First, you’ll need to find a sunny window to start seeds unless you’re going to use a fluorescent light. Next, collect containers. These can be plastic margarine tubs, egg cartons, milk cartons, both paper and plastic, or recycled nursery cell packs. If you’re using containers from the previous year, sanitize them by soaking them in a 10% bleach solution for 20 minutes. Make sure all your containers have drainage holes.

With the layout of your yard in hand (or in mind) head to your local nursery to select seeds. You can find seeds in grocery and hardware stores, but the professional advice offered at a reputable nursery is priceless. Also, you may find unique varieties not found elsewhere. This is where it’s helpful to know where you’re going to plant these fabulous vegetables or flowers and how much sun they’ll get in their final growing space.

After good light, a decent growing medium is a must-have for seedling success. There are many good varieties of soilless seed-starting products on the market. Resist the impulse to use your own garden soil, it’s usually too compacted for seedlings started indoors. Dampen the soil mix to the consistency of a wrung out sponge and put it in the containers.

Then, finally, plant the seeds. Most seed packets will have exact requirements of seed growth. Basically, some seeds require total darkness to germinate, others require light. You should find that information on the packet.

For seeds that need light, gently press them into the soil mix and do not cover the soil. For others, place seeds on the surface and then, using an old kitchen sieve, shake more soil mix on top. Spray the surface with water from a spray bottle. Keep that bottle handy over the next few weeks, you want to water these babies gently. Cover the containers with plastic wrap to keep the soil moisture constant. Depending on how many varieties you’re planting, label each container so you’ll know who’s who.

Check containers daily and one day you’ll see sprouts. For me, that’s an event. I’ve been known to email the news to my gardening friends especially if it’s a plant I’ve never tried to grow before.

At this point carefully remove the plastic wrap. Be sure the seedlings are getting good air circulation to prevent fungal disease. If the seedlings are in front of a window turn the trays every day. And, keep the soil evenly moist but not too wet.

Once the second set of leaves has developed feed the seedling every week with a half-strength liquid fertilizer. Depending on how many seeds have germinated you may want to thin out the seedlings to prevent overcrowding and ensure they will develop into strong healthy plants. Thin out by carefully cutting back the stems. Don’t try to pull an overcrowded seedling. You may disturb plants you want to save.

When the weather has settled and there’s no danger of frost it’s time to harden the seedlings outdoors. Just be aware this is Colorado and there always a chance of a surprise around the corner so keep your eye on the weather. The first day place the seedlings outside in a shady, protected area for a few hours. Gradually increase sun exposure each day for at least a week or when you see they are growing strong and ready to go out on their own. (See also our whole post on hardening off seedlings.)

There you have it. There’s a special pleasure in growing your own plants. Happy gardening.
Contributed by Eileen Tully, Certified Colorado Gardener
Photo courtesy of ‘plants in motion’ University of Indiana