Thursday, April 24, 2008

Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting Seeds IndoorsDo you have a garden? Even a little one? I don't care if you live in the heart of the city or down on the farm among the cows there's a thrill that comes from coaxing something green out of the soil and every spring I get that nagging to plant.

However, it's not too cheap to fill a garden with flowers or veggies, you can shell out much more than the harvested produce is worth if you're not careful. BUT . . . starting your own seeds from scratch is not only cost-efficient it's fun. Kids always--and I mean ALWAYS--love planting things, I've never seen a child yet that doesn't find planting a seed interesting.

So try these tips for starting your own seeds indoors to save some money or do it to save some sanity if you're looking for a fun activity with your family. The family that plants together stays together. Or at least eats lots of zucchini together.

1. Time After Time. Now in Alaska the first thing to consider is time--our growing season is very short so if we want to have pansies in July we'd better think ahead. It varies according to the type of seed you're planting but most seeds will require roughly six to eight weeks of lead time before they're strong enough to plant outside. So that means start thinking about your seeds at the beginning of April, maybe even March. Time waits for no man and neither do petunias.

Starting Seeds Indoors2. Dish that Dirt. You have a couple options when it comes to materials. They have those fancy incubators now where you get a plastic tray, a clear cover and 50 little compressed peat pellets and those work fine but they can be rather expensive (about $8). You don't need fancy peat pellets, just a bag of potting soil, a spoon and some empty egg cartons.

Sprinkle the dirt in the egg cups (or go buy those little organic seedling six-pack trays if that makes you feel better--I also save my little plastic six-packs that I get when I buy seedlings and re-use those) but make sure the dirt isn't pressed in there too compactly. If you really wanted to send the whole operation into the tech age you could get some popsicle sticks to use as row markers so you remember what you've planted but that's just gravy.

3. Choose Wisely. Picking the right seeds is critical. I don't know why but they'll sell you any kind of seed in the world here and never bother to tell you that the chances of you getting that watermelon to fruit in Alaska are about as good as Brittany and Kevin settling down together in the suburbs. You have to pick seeds that will actually have a fighting chance. Some aren't ever going to grow outside here (basil, peppers, melons) some will if you baby them along (tomatoes, cucumbers) and some will grow no matter what (peas, cabbage, lettuce). Know how much sunlight your plants' ultimate destination will have, think about whether the spots are protected from wind, how much water they get and choose accordingly.

Then don't be surprised if you end up killing a few while you learn what will grow in which spot because you're going to mess up a few plants--consider it collateral damage. For shaded areas try impatiens, for full sun try nasturtiums. For lots of pretty smell around the borders try alyssum, for nasty smelling bug repellant try marigolds, for pots try sweet peas or trailing lobelia.

4. When is a Perrenial NOT a Perennial? Which brings me to perennials: flowers that will come back year after year. Annuals are plants that will live for only one growing season. There are also bi-annuals which live for two growing seasons and self-sowing annuals that die off but will cast their seeds into the soil so you get more plants the next year anyway. Sweet deal, huh? Well it's a good deal until suddenly your garden has been overtaken by Johnny Jump-Ups (or Chimpansies as we call them) and Bachelor Buttons. Funny thing about violas or pansies is that even though they self-sow, often the strains that you buy in the greenhouses have been bred from other varieties and the seeds that grow the next year revert back to the parents. So though you may plant mixed Victorian violas in lovely impressionist colors the next year your garden may be invaded by tiny yellow Johnny's. Go figure. But I digress.

USDA Zone HardinessHowever, here in Alaska just because a seed says it's a perennial doesn't mean it's telling the truth. Here in Anchorage we're a USDA Hardiness Zone 2 or 3, depending on whom you talk to, which means summers are cool and brief--with the added oddity of lots of daylight.

Don't expect everything that says it will come back to come back, you have to know your climate but don't let that stop you from planting it anyway, you can always just enjoy it for the one year and let it die because if you're starting it from seed it won't be too expensive anyway. It just won't grow to its full potential in only one growing season.

5. Feed Me Seymour. Once you've planted three or four seeds in each little cup according to the planting depth listed on the seed packet you'll need to water them carefully, allowing the extra water to drain through the drainage holes in the bottom (tell me you've remembered to put a hole in the bottom of each of your egg cups!) And if you're using organic cups over plastic you'll have to be extra vigilant that the dirt doesn't dry out. It's best to check every day just to keep the ground moist otherwise the seeds won't germinate properly.

6. The Greenhouse Effect. One way to help keep the dirt moist is by covering it with plastic wrap. A little layer of plastic will not only help the dirt retain moisture better but it will help to keep the dirt warm as the seeds start to sprout. Once the seeds begin to push against the plastic wrap you can take the plastic off but don't forget to keep watering them every day or you'll find your seeds falling victim to drought. I'll often leave the bottoms wrapped in plastic wrap to retain moisture better.

7. Good Day Sunshine. With the trays planted and nicely watered and wrapped in plastic it's time to put them in the sun. The seeds need the warmth and energy the sun provides so let them do some sunbathing.

8. More Sunshine. Here in the frigid north the spring sun won't be enough. It's just not strong enough to do much good so I need a supplemental light source if I want to prevent my little seedlings from getting tall and spindly (good if you're a supermodel, bad if you're a tomato plant). You can get a plant light at most Wal-mart style stores for about $10 and the bulbs will put out enough light to keep things growing great. You can try it without but then you're just asking for trouble--I promise.

9. Kill a Few. Now comes the hard part. You've got your seeds, they're growing great and they're starting to crowd each other in the cups. You've got to weed them down. That means finding the strongest sprout in each cup and pulling out all the others. Yes, it's cruel and my kids get upset every time I explain it but it has to be done. This isn't the time to get wishy-washy and emotional with the "let's save the plants" thing. Just kill them off and be done with it.

10. Pinch Me Quick. The first leaves you see on the sprout will be the two primary leaves. They won't look anything like the leaves that the rest of the plant will have but the next set of leaves to grow will be the "true" leaves and will look like they should. Once you see the true leaves growing you can begin feeding the seedlings a very weak, watered down fertilizer if you wish. You can also grind up two or three generic aspirins in a gallon of water to use with the watering which will help promote root growth. The same chemicals in the aspirin are also found in willow branches and are good for encouraging roots.

Some times you can pinch off the top part of a seedling, if it's good and strong, to encourage it to grow strong roots or to grow nice and bushy but be careful doing this--some seedlings don't like it but most will do better with a little pruning. Once the third set of true leaves emerge then pinch them off with your fingernails and it will encourage the plant to grow fatter.

Sunburned Leaves11. The Hard Stuff. Now once your seedlings are bushy and pretty and ready to go outside for planting you must harden them off. This isn't because of the temperatures so much as it's because plants that have grown indoors are used to being babied, they're not used to the direct sunlight and wind and will burn. You have to ease them into the sun or their leaves will brown up like you see in this picture at the right and they'll be stunted for quite a while before recovering (if they recover).

Start out setting the plants in a protected shady corner for a few hours in the afternoon then each day for about two weeks you should give them more and more direct sunlight. You can move them from the north side to the south side of the house over the two week period perhaps but watch each day for signs of distress or burning--it may take a couple days to register on the plant though so watch carefully before the damage is done.

12. Bloom When You're Planted. Be aware of when planting day is in your area. Here in Anchorage it's traditionally June 1st, though that can move a week depending on the weather. It's always tempting to plant earlier and I usually give in and live to regret it but if I've hardened the plants off properly I can get away with it better than if I didn't. Stick to those dates people, they're there for a reason.

13. Harvest Season. Gather the seeds in the fall if you're feeling especially horticultural. If you're really good you can collect the seeds of many of your plants and use them for next year's seedlings. Some plants, like chives, have seeds that are very easy to collect. In the fall you just shake the dried blossoms in your hands and there you go. Others are trickier but if you observe and experiment you can have some seeds for the next season. What a bargain!


If you'd like some other great gardening reads check out Amy's list. The Motherload always has wonderful tips and tricks and she's put together a terrific list of resources.

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SuburbanCorrespondent said...

So I guess it's cheating to pick up already started lettuce and basil plants at the farmers' market, huh? The only thing I'll start from seed are green beans, because they are the only seedlings which grow fast enough to survive the ravages of the hungry animal population at our community garden plot. I swear, the whole place is just like a food court to them.

MRMacrum said...

Before my life's pace hit the super highway, I kept and experimented with gardening for 10 years or so. Now I just try to find time to keep the jungle from taking over my yard.

Your point about picking seeds wisely is well taken. Especially for folks in colder climes like you and I live in.

What I did was find a seed company sensitive to this problem. Johnny Seeds in Albion, Maine is a seed company growing and developing seed stocks in Maine. The best luck I had with vegetable seeds was when using their seeds. I also grew what I consider blue ribbon sized Cauliflower and broccli. I have a picture somewhere of a cauliflower head 18+ inches across.

I miss the garden and am touched by guilt every time I gaze out into the yard where my raised beds still sit un-planted. But owning my own business has taken priority.

Oh well.

Darla said...

I've got an excellent excuse not to garden this spring--I'm moving in about 2 months! That's the only reason, I swear! (crossing my fingers behind my back)

I think all those years working in the acre-sized vegetable garden (it belonged to the extended family, but it was next to our house, so we're the ones who got to do the weeding and picking and hoeing and shelling and hulling and freezing and canning and everything else garden-related) used up every last bit of gardening impulse for my entire life. I periodically think about planting something, but the most I've ever followed through on is a small herb garden.

Stephanie said...

Oh I do have a hard time thinning my seedlings! Never heard that about using aspirin. Thanks!

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I always have trouble with the thinning out, pruning, and hardening. But I have finally learned that they are important and I will do them (if I HAVE to).

April ~ Living the Sweet Life said...

Gardening on the mind just like me. I guess it is on the minds of many this week, Yesterday the kids and I sat down went through the seeds we need to start inside and planned each of their garden spaces. Saturday we are going to a tomato growing workshop. This post is also another great source. They will all be reading it! Thanks,

Jordan (MamaBlogga) said...

June 1?! It's May 15 down here (last frost day, anyway).

I just checked on my garden yesterday. I thought I was going to have to replant everything because I let it dry out. But nope, I found teeeeeeny, tiiiiiiny little lettuce and spinach sprouts. The peas had put down roots, too. I'm very excited; normally I kill things. I just hope I can get the wilt off those strawberry plants. Starting seeds indoors three years in advance=not my idea of worth it.

Oh, I use unwaxed paper cups (3 oz Dixie cups that we originally bought for Hayden) for my sprouts. If the sprouts are very delicate, you can just tear the bottom off the cup and plant it in the garden as is. (Or so I'm told.) Then again, I don't see anything growing in my cups. Maybe I drowned them?

Janet said...

I grow morning glories and basil from seed. Last year I harvested the morning glory seeds so we'll see if that works. We have very little direct sunlight. No more than 2 hours in any given spot during the day, and most of that is in the driveway. So I start them indoors and plant them in pots on the deck. Last year we tried one tomato plant, but I didn't know about pinching the stray things, so we only got 4 tomatoes, but they were tasty. So we'll be trying that again. I'm bad about not thinning, too. This year I'm trying to get mint established. Everyone I know has more mint than they want and I can't get it started. So I started it inside this time and we'll transfer when it gets bigger.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle! What a wonderful post. I have peppers and basil just sprouting on my windowsill. I don't like "killing them softly" either :)

tjhirst said...

I am a somewhat proficient gardener, but this is the first year I am planting my own seeds indoors. It was great to see that first sprout! Thanks for the grow light suggestion. I thought just the sunny window would do, but after reading this, I dug up my aquarium light and turned that on. I hope it will work. What do you think?

Scribbit said...

That should work, your area may get stronger spring light than we do so keep that in mind. The sun just sits on the horizon right now.

Daisy said...

My solution for thinning the plants is simple: pet rabbits. They eat the seedlings that I pull out, and nothing goes to waste. In fact, they're the reason I plant carrots; carrots don't grow well in our soil, but the bunnies love the greens.

crazy working mom said...

Great gardening tips! :)

Happy TT!

Amy said...

Such an awesome tutorial. Thank you so much for linking up to me- what an honor to be featured by such an awesome blogger :) I am touched!