Depending on what you plan to grow and where you live, it is not too early to at least be thinking about, if not actually preparing to, plant seeds for your Spring/Summer Garden.
Customers ask me all the time what the best method for seed germination is and I always tell them, “it depends!” The basics:
- clean containers with drainage and tray
- sterile seed starting medium (not soil)
- cover for maintaining humidity in the first period with ventilation holes pricked
- non-chlorinated water
- some method of labeling … this can be a simple grid labeling system with A-Z taped on one side and sequential numbers on the other, then keeping a chart that corresponds (i.e., A1 = Brandywine, etc.)
This doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition and is wonderful for repurposing! You can use styrafoam egg cartons cutting the tops to use as trays and poking holes in the sides at the bottoms of the “cups” for draining. I have also used saved cardboard toilet paper rolls, pushing one end in to create a bottom to hold the seed starting mix and seeds, etc. Use your imagination but be sure the containers are clean. Farmer’s Almanac has a great general guide.
Temperature is so important, and providing the right temp can greatly increase your germination rates. (BTW, I always advise investing in a soil thermometer for direct sowing outdoors.) For example, tomatoes will germinate at the optimum rate at 68F, or your average home temp in the winter. Whereas peppers need 77F for optimal germination so providing some kind of bottom heat will help tremendously. You can use this excellent chart showing varying germination rates/temps and optimal temps for each variety.
Timing is critical … plan your seed starts counting backwards in weeks from your last frost date for the variety you are planting. For example, tomatoes generally need to be started 6 weeks before the last frost date for your area (and new gardeners note that the number of days listed for seeds like tomatoes are days to mature from date of transplant, not germination), but some herbs require 10 weeks or more. This site provides great general map, but if you are on a zone line, check with your local weather or ag extension office.
Variety specifics matter! Not all seeds are good candidates for starting indoors. Seeds with taproots are problematic because you may disturb or break that root in transplanting. Some seeds require pre-treatment such as scarification, soaking or extended chilling to break their dormancy. And some seeds require light to germinate, so need to be planted in the open with little or no cover but maintaining moisture.
Once your seeds are germinated and reached the “true leaves” stage, light becomes very important. Perhaps the most important investment a gardener can make is some sort of grow light because growing on a windowsill is fraught with problems and will often result in spindly weakened starts. Place your grow light above the seeds and within a few inches to start, moving the light or seeds farther apart as they progress. As the seedling begin to mature, provide some hardening — brushing them lightly with your hand and/or turning on an overhead fan, to replicate conditions they will soon need to endure. When they are big enough and strong enough for garden placement, and when soil and air temps are acceptable, you will need to first expose them to sunlight in small time increments, lengthening the exposure until they can withstand the bright light of day. To be on the safe side, transplant on a cloudy day, especially if a gentle rain is in the offing. You can even cloche special seedlings to protect from the vagaries of Spring weather.
If you have questions about your seed starting efforts, I would love to help. Just leave a comment and I will reply!
— The Garden Chick