Give seeds a head start indoors

By Phyllis Webster

Gardeners simply can’t wait to get their fingers in the dirt. Unfortunately, early spring chores seldom satisfy the urge to plant.

Given the last expected freeze is in mid-March, starting plants from seed indoors is a smart way to start a garden early. To ensure success, always purchase fresh seed. Check the seed packages for a current date.

You may start seeds in containers placed on an indoor windowsill or under grow lights. Almost any type of shallow container may be used including individual terra-cotta or plastic pots, trays, cells, nursery flats, peat pots or inexpensive recycled egg cartons.

Scrub and disinfect any container to ensure it is disease and pest free. If your containers do not have drainage holes, either punch or drill holes in them (bottom side) for this purpose.

Fill the containers with a high-quality moistened seed starting mix. Use an organic, finely shredded potting medium for proper drainage. Ingredients in the best mixes typically include peat or sphagnum moss, perlite or vermiculite.

Sow seeds at the depth recommended on seed packages. In general, sow each seed four times as deep as the seed is wide. If seeds are very small, sow them on the surface of the soil and cover them with a thin layer of soil. Place the containers in a well-lit window. Or, if you are starting seedlings under grow lights (typically fluorescent), position the lights close to the containers.

Keep the soil moist. Mist the soil surface rather than using hoses or watering cans that allow the force of the water to displace seeds. Next, cover the soil surface or container with a sheet of plastic wrap, plastic bag or a sheet of glass to help seal in moisture. If you opt not to cover the pots, you may need to mist the soil 2-3 times per day. As the seeds develop, they first grow roots, then stems and seed leaves. Seedlings take a few days to a few weeks to emerge from the soil. When they emerge, they require very consistent watering and strong light. Seedlings next sprout “true leaves.” Once the first few sets of true leaves emerge, the plants need to be transplanted to a larger container using the same potting mix. Be very careful when handling the seedlings. Damage to leaves or stems may kill the plant.

When moving plants outdoors, first condition them to the outdoor elements. Place them in a shaded outside location during the day and bring them in at night. Gradually expose them to more sunshine and wind before planting them in the ground.

Resources: American Horticultural Society, Southern Living, AgriLife Extension