With the official start to spring just a month away, it's time to start thinking about seed starting. Growing your own plants from seed is easy, rewarding and economical and it's a great way to take advantage of the diverse selection of seeds that are available through mail order catalogues and on local seed racks. If you've never started your own seeds, take the opportunity to head to Halifax Seed to check out their massive assortment of flower, veggie and herb seeds, or pop into the Seaport Farmer's Market on a Saturday and browse through the offerings of Annapolis Seeds. You will be amazed at the selection of varieties that you can't find as transplants at garden centers come planting time.
In my experience, starting your own plants from seed is a big step for novice gardeners and one that many find intimidating. Yet, fear not, as growing your own seeds is actually quite simple. To help guide you, here are my 10 steps to successful seed starting:
1) Plant fresh seed at the right time - It is important to sow seed that is fresh to ensure a high germination rate. Read your seed packet to find out when how many weeks of growth your plants will need before they can be moved outdoors. The majority of vegetables and annual flowers will need between three to 12 weeks under gro-lights or in a sunny window.
2) Start with a soil ideal for seeds - Most garden plants will be happiest if started in a soil-less mix composed of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and nutrients, such as Pro-Mix.
3) Plant seeds in clean containers - I like to plant my seeds in plastic cell packs, which are then placed in seed trays, as it allows for an efficient use of space. Yet, almost any type of container may be used to start seeds - clean yogurt containers, egg cartons and milk cartons, for example.
4) Provide ample light - Lack of adequate light is the biggest challenge when growing plants indoors. Use a sunny window or full spectrum fluorescent lights, keeping gro-lights on for 16 hours a day. I hooked mine up to an inexpensive timer to make life easier. Continually adjust the height of the lights so that they are only 2 to 3-inches above the foliage.
5) Plant seeds at the right depth - As a general rule, seeds should be planted at a depth of one to two times their diameter, with tiny seeds just sprinkled over the soil surface. And don't forget to label your pots!
6) Maintain a warm temperature - Most annual, perennial and vegetable seeds will germinate best at standard room temperature.
7) Humidity - Once planted, a sheet of plastic wrap should be placed over the seed tray to prevent moisture from evaporating and to maintain the humidity at an acceptable level for germination. When the seedlings emerge, remove the cover to allow the air to circulate.
8) Provide good air circulation - Adequate air circulation can be a problem inside a house closed up for the winter, but an oscillating fan set on low will provide plenty of air circulation and help prevent fungal problems.
9) Feed and water your plants - An application of water-soluble fertilizer at ½ the recommended rate every week will ensure sufficient nutrition.
10) Harden off properly - Prepare your seedlings for the real world (sun, wind, rain) about a week before transplanting by gradually acclimating them to outdoor conditions. Begin by putting them outside for a few hours on a warm day in a shady spot. Bring them indoors again at night. Over the next few days gradually give them a bit more sunlight and leave them outside longer. By the end of the week, they should be ready to be planted in the garden.
Niki Jabbour is the author of the award winning book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener (2012 Book Award American Horticultural Society) and the host of The Weekend Gardener. Find her on facebook and Twitter @NikiJabbour.