A quick guide to getting your garden started early

It’s Time to Start the Seeds

by Laura Everard

When it comes to growing your own plants from seed, know your growing conditions, pay attention to the plant’s specific needs—and keep experimenting. The joy of starting seeds indoors comes in part from watching those small green shoots work their way out of the soil when the mornings are still dark and the weather still bites.

The Basics

Seeds, container selection and soil
When selecting your seeds: Check for things like disease resistance and lighting requirements. If you live on a shady block, you might not have much success growing a lot of vegetables and flowers. There are options, it just takes a little research.

Choosing a container: Make sure it has proper drainage. I prefer plastic because it can be reused and is easy to clean. Using individual peat pots is also a popular choice since they can be planted directly in the ground without hassling the roots—although peat is a nonrenewable resource and can dry out quickly. Cardboard egg cartons are a good, cheap, more eco-friendly option. You can honestly start seeds in anything, even something like yogurt cups with holes in the bottom. Get creative!

Good soil drainage is key and is largely affected by soil choice: I recommend a seed starting mix, which is very porous and easily obtained at garden centers. Regular planting mix is often dense and retains too much moisture for seeds to thrive.

If you’re saving seeds during or at the end of the season: Seal opened packages as tightly as possible, place them in a Mason jar and leave in a cool, dry, dark place.

Germination
Follow instructions: It sounds simple, but you’ll get the best results if you read the instructions on the packet, which will include when to start the seeds and how deep to plant them. If there is no packet and you aren’t sure about where to start, just look it up online. If you don’t know the variety, just look up the general plant (i.e., tomato, sunflower, etc.), and you should be able to piece together the basic sowing and care instructions.

Temperature: If you are starting your seeds indoors, keep them in a warm place (60 to 75 degrees). Waterproof heating mats are great tools for keeping seed flats evenly warm, which can speed up and increase germination. Although effective tools, they are not required.

Sowing seeds directly in your container: Before planting your seeds, place the soil in a container and evenly moisten it without oversaturating. Pack the soil down firmly, 1/2 inch below the lip of the container. Place multiple seeds per hole at the required spacing and depth (you will thin them down to the strongest one once they have emerged). Once the seeds are placed, push the soil over them and pack it lightly but evenly.  

Using the paper towel method to germinate seeds: Wet 3 paper towels and place seeds inside, making sure they don’t touch. Carefully put the towels in a plastic bag (don’t seal it).  Check daily and mist when dry. Plant the seeds in soil as soon as they germinate.

A tip for germinating carrots: Save paper towel and toilet paper rolls and use a rubber band to secure some paper towel or a coffee filter to one end. Fill the tubes with clean soil, stopping 1/2 inch from the top. Create a 1/4-inch-deep furrow and plant up to 4 carrot seeds across it.  Lightly cover the seeds with soil and softly pack it down.

Helping seedlings thrive
Lots of sun is crucial: Generally, seedlings need 8 to 15 hours of direct sunlight to thrive, which can be problematic in the winter. If you have a very sunny, south-facing window, you might be able to get enough light to produce healthy seedlings. If your house is on the dark side, I would recommend rigging up grow lights (hung about 12 inches above the tray) and a light timer (you can purchase these at any large hardware store).  

Watering before the seedlings emerge: Some flats come with clear covers—if not, lightly cover the top of the soil with damp paper or plastic wrap with holes until the seedlings start to emerge. Spritz the paper if it dries out.

Watering after seedlings emerge: Use a spray bottle because the stream from a watering can may be too intense. The soil should not be too wet because this will cause the seeds to rot.

Transplanting
When it’s time for them to be on their own: Once your seedlings have formed 2 to 3 sets of mature leaves, they are ready to transplant into their own container and can go outside the second week of April.

Easy Starter Seeds
Predicted last frost: April 6

Zinnias
Start indoors around the end of February and transplant once all threat of frost is gone. Space the seedlings a few inches apart.  You should get flowers in 60 to 70 days. These are  easy-to-grow show-stoppers that produce plenty of stunning cut flowers.

Peppers
Start 8 to 10 weeks before last frost. You can start these seeds with the paper towel method. Lots of light, not too much water. Transplant after the threat of frost is gone. Plants will fruit 60 to 160 days after planting.

Carrots
Sow anytime after mid-March. They can take up to 2 weeks to germinate, so don’t panic if they don’t show signs of life right away. It usually takes about 60 to 80 days after you plant the seeds for them to reach full maturity. Resow seeds every few weeks during cool weather only.

Lettuce
You can sow the seeds outside a couple of weeks before last frost; they have fast germination and high yield. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep and between 4 to 18 inches apart (depending on variety).  Resow new seeds every 2 weeks to keep the crop going, but taper off a little in the warmer months.

Basil
Start them inside a couple of weeks before April 6, or plant outside after the threat of frost is gone. Bury seeds 1/4 inch deep and 6 to 12 inches apart. This is a fast plant to germinate as long as it is in a sunny area with well-drained soil.

Chives
Plant 1/4 inch deep in well-drained soil. If you want to plant the seeds directly outdoors, wait until after April 6. If you start the seeds inside, keep them somewhere cool and dark until they sprout, then place them somewhere with a lot of light.

Forget-me-nots
Sow indoors a couple of weeks before the last frost for longer blooms, or directly in the ground after the threat of frost is gone. Plant 1/8 inch deep and 4 to 5 inches apart and then thin them to 10 to 12 inches apart.