Ready, set, start your seeds

Home gardeners can start their own plants from seed, but usually on a slightly smaller scale than this commercial grower. PHOTO: Submitted

Right around now I start hearing a lot of questions like, “How do I start seeds indoors?” or “What kind of soil should I use?” or even “Help, my seedlings are falling over. What should I do?”

Before I answer those – and more – full disclosure: I don’t like to start plants from seed myself. I don’t have wide windowsills or sunny south-facing windows. My light unit is already crammed with tender herbs and tropical plants. And I don’t have time or patience to water trays of tiny pots and shift them so they always get enough light.

But I do see the attraction of growing from seed: more interesting varieties, more plants for less money and a sense of satisfaction from creating something from virtually nothing. So, if you want to give it a try, here are some basics to get you started.

When should I start seeds indoors?

Right now. Generally, veggies should be started from seed six to eight weeks before the first frost-free date. Around here, count back from about mid-May to find the right start date. The back of the seed package tells you the exact lead time for individual vegetables.

What kind of soil should I use?

Look for bags marked “sterile seed starting mix.” Sterile is important because seedlings are vulnerable to all kinds of nasty stuff that regular bagged soil carries. Seed starting mixes are also finer-textured than other bagged soils, so it’s easier to set seeds at the right depth. Do not use soil from your garden to start seeds indoors.

How much light do I need to start seeds indoors?

A lot. Seeds will come up without much light, but if you want them to keep growing, they need daylong bright sunshine or artificial lights about six inches above their tiny leaves. Adjusting that distance, in fact, is one of the big challenges of indoor seed starting. You need to be able to raise your lights or lower your seed trays as the seedlings grow. There’s no alternative to this. Of course, with all that light, be sure not to your plants dry out. Aim for moist, but not wet soil.

Why are my seedlings skinny and floppy?

The poor things are most likely stretching for light. Move your lights closer or raise the plants closer to the light somehow.

My seedlings are healthy and happy, with lots of green leaves. What do I do now?

Just like little people and baby clothes, little plants outgrow their first containers. With plants, this is called potting up, and you do it when the seedling has a few sets of leaves.  Hopefully, you’ve started your seeds in tiny pots or plastic cells, so you can simply coax the plant (or plants) out and gently settle them into their very own four-inch pots. Do not grab the little ones by the stem, which is very delicate. Carefully handle them by the leaves, which can survive slight bruising.

So now I just keep watering them, and I can plant them outside when it’s warmer?

Sorry, it’s not that simple. Now that they’re up and growing, you have to start feeding the little darlings. That seed starting mix was only something for their roots to hang on to. Now they need soil with real nourishment. When you pot them up, use bagged mixes labelled for the type of plants you’re growing. Add some organic fertilizer from time to time. Next, get ready for the fun of “hardening off.” Put bluntly, this means shuffling trays of young plants out of the house on sunny days and back inside during the colder nights. You’ll be doing that for one week or more, depending on the temperatures, to get them used to the outside environment. If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse or cold frame, the shuffle won’t be quite so frantic.

If you want more info, I recommend the website Click on the heading “Book sneak a peak” for two helpful videos.  Go to “Shop” to order the smart, fun book, No-Guff Vegetable Gardening, by Canadian gardeners Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs. Lots of charts and fun pictures, no great grey gobs of text. Win your own copy! See contest info on this page.

Free garden book contest

The no-guff gardeners are offering a free copy of their book to two lucky Beach Metro Community News readers. To enter, just send an email to me at by midnight, Friday, May 19. Put “no-guff contest” in the subject line, and include your name, address and phone number. All entries will go in my lucky gardening bucket, and two winners will be drawn and notified before the end of the following week. Winners’ names will also appear in the May 31 issue.

*The contest entry deadline date has been extended

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