Seeds to plants — let’s start at the beginning

After a career in retail, I get it: Stores can rush the seasons. I agree that it can feel wrong.
This week, Valentine’s Day and even Easter have started creeping into displays, but this time that is OK, because you know what else is starting to appear? Seed packets. Yes! After a winter break to celebrate the holidays, gardening is back.

That might be a stretch; it’s January, and the ground is frozen. But we can begin to plan and prepare for early spring gardens. One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that many new gardens and gardeners emerged. A lesson learned from 2020: buy seeds and supplies early because products sell out fast.

As you walk through the aisles and flip through seed catalogs, and your excitement level rises (or is that just me?), you need a plan. The packets make it look easy, but not all seeds are the “toss in the ground and water” kind of seeds.

Since many of us are still spending a considerable amount of time at home, this might be the year you try starting seeds indoors, creating seedlings that will be ready to plant outside, generally after the last frost.

The first step is deciding what to plant. Seed catalogs are being delivered, emails are filling inboxes and store displays are full; it’s time to make some choices. Of course, I will buy plants from local vendors and farmers, but there is something special about nurturing a seed into a mature, healthy plant.

Indoor seeding works for vegetable and flower seeds, and I have done both. But right now, I’m thinking about vegetables. Tomatoes and peppers are good choices to start indoors. Root vegetables such as carrots and beets work best sowed directly into the ground. So do fast-growing plants such as radishes, lettuce and peas.

After buying your seeds, gather your supplies. You will need potting containers. These don’t have to be fancy. Most places that sell seeds also sell the starting flats; they look like big ice cube trays for plants. Biodegradable pots or soil pellets work, so do egg cartons (be sure to put holes in the bottom for drainage). You will need potting soil. I would also grab a marker and tape; labeling the seeds to help remember what you planted in each flat is a good idea.

Read the seed packet instructions. There is a lot of information for growing healthy plants right on the back of the packet. It will tell you how much light and water is needed and the length of time for the growing cycle.

Knowing the growing cycle will help you decide when to start your seeds indoors so they will be ready for the garden at just the right time.

I like to water the soil before placing the seed securely, but not deeply, into the soil. For future watering, I place the flats on trays so I can water from the bottom up, letting the soil absorb the water from the trays instead of watering the tops of the containers. I also give them a squirt with the spray bottle as they grow.

This first phase is germination. The seed is beginning to sprout roots and leaves are forming. This is happening underground, so no extra light is needed. It helps to keep the trays warm and loosely covered to create a humid-but-not-wet environment.

When the plant breaks through the soil, it has entered the growing phase. Remove any covers and add light. Here, seedlings will need six to eight hours of light a day. I have had success in a sunny spot on the kitchen counter, but grow lights have come a long way over the years. Now, some even clip onto the side of containers; others look like flexible table lamps. Although not necessary, they are an easy addition to your gardening arsenal.

As your plants continue to grow, you may need to repot them to a larger container, giving them room to build a root system to feed and secure the plant’s stems. When the time comes to move the seedlings into the outside garden, don’t rush it. Let them become acclimated to their new environment by exposing them to outside sunlight and air for a few hours each day. During the course of a week or so, gradually increase the time outside, yet bringing them indoors at night.

This process of hardening off helps your babies make the transition to teenagers ready to be grown-up plants outside in the world of your garden. OK, that’s a little corny, but you have spent weeks getting these seeds ready to transfer to your garden. Don’t just kick them out of your cozy house.

Starting seeds indoors can save money, let you have more variety in your garden or even create a science project with the kids. Mostly for me, it’s fun. I love the challenge and the sense of accomplishment, plus it lets me play in the garden without putting on my boots and mittens when it’s freezing outside.