Are you starting seeds indoors this year? If you’re in a Zone 3 gardening zone like Winnipeg, Manitoba, now is the time to get some of your favourite garden veggies started inside.
Based on our average first frost free date of May 24, end of March to mid April is the time to get leeks, tomatoes, peppers, and ground cherries started. I know, many people started weeks ago, but while I’m usually a keener on most things, I really don’t like starting my plants too soon. I find my plants get too tall and spindly and difficult to manage if started too early. But that’s just me – every gardener has their own way – you gotta do what works for you.
Years ago, I started keeping a chart of when to seed what, how to plant them, whether to seed indoors or outdoors and so on. The chart changes and grows every year – here’s the latest version. It saves me from looking up the same info every year – perhaps you’ll find it useful too. Just remember, no two growing spots are alike, so tweaking and adjusting to your garden is important.
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In addition to figuring out timing, here are 6 tips for starting seeds indoors.
Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors
1. Seed Preferences
Every seed is special (Monty Python, anyone:) ). They all have their unique preferences regarding how deep they like to be planted, spacing, lighting, temperature, etc. Those preferences are provided on the seed pack. All you need to do is follow the directions! Of course, if you saved seeds from last year or you picked up some seeds at a seed exchange like Seedy Saturday, you may not have the instructions, you’ll find some basic guidelines in the Planting Chart . Of course, googling it works too!
You have a lot of options when it comes to containers to start your seeds in. The key criteria is that they must be: clean, have good drainage and able to hold 3 inches of starting mix. You can reuse last year’s garden centre containers but you really should clean and bleach them to ensure there are no pathogens that will compromise your seedlings. Here’s where I confess – I didn’t clean my containers, I got lazy and just wanted to get going, definitely a case of – here’s what you should do versus here’s what I actually do! Perhaps this will lead me to have to buy plants later this spring!
For most seeds, you’ll want either small, individual containers, or large trays with divided cells. This prevents roots from growing together and makes it easier to divide your plants when ready to transplant. Onions and leeks are less finicky and can be seeded in large trays.
Adele, over at the Garden Coach uses toilet paper rolls as convenient, plantable containers.
For lettuce and mesclun mix that I plant to eat, not transplant, I used an old lettuce container. Ironic, don’t you think.
Remember, to ensure there are good drainage holes in your containers and that you have a drip tray underneath. Things can get pretty messy if you forget that drip tray!
The plastic dome that comes with store bought seed starting trays is intended to help keep moisture and warm air in the container. If you have it, great, if not don’t worry about it – just keep your pants moist and warm.
Read any article on the topic of soil mix and you’ll soon know that it’s confusing with some debate about what should or should not be in the soil, whether it should or should not be treated. Who knew that there’d be so much to consider.
My best advice is to go to your favorite greenhouse and talk to the experts who can provide recommendations regarding what’s important to you.
I’ve often take creative licence to mix my own soil with whatever I happen to have in the house, in the garage and around the yard. Shocking, right! Sometimes my mix includes garden soil mixed with vermiculite, vermipost (worm castings) and compost. Sometimes it’s garden soil, sand, peat moss and potting mix from the store. And sometimes I splurge on fancy organic seaweed soil mix. My goal is to mix up something that is light and fluffy, that holds moisture well but that also drains well and something that offers some nutrients.
The drawback of my method is that I sometimes have mystery plants or fungi that seem to germinate with my veggies. It causes me a little concern, but I pluck ’em and carry on. I know I’m probably not using the optimum soil, but at the same time, my germination is great and I end up with enough seedlings to plant a huge garden full. And really, what more could I want?!
Before I put my soil in the containers, I make sure it’s moist throughout. Basically, I just mix in water until it’s just damp (not sopping wet). Once I put the seeds in the soil I use a spray bottle to keep the soil moist while the seeds are germinating. I use a watering can only when they’re big and strong enough to handle that kind of watering. Another option is to water the containers from the bottom up, by pouring water into the drip tray and letting the water get soaked up.
At the very least you need a south facing window where your seedlings can soak up as much light as possible. You’ll need to rotate your seedlings so they don’t start growing lop-sided and so that those in the back row get a chance to move front and centre. If your window is an old, drafty one, your seedlings may suffer from the cold at night or from the extreme temperature difference between blazing sun at noon and icy cold drafts at night. You may need to draw the curtain at night or use a heating pad to keep your babies warm at night.
If you don’t have great natural lighting and are eager to do whatever it takes to avoid spindly plants, consider setting up indoor grow lights or cool flourescent tubes. For me, having the proper lighting has made all the difference to successfully starting seedlings. I may cheat with soil and clean containers – but I don’t cheat when it comes to lighting. I use a timer and keep the lights 1-2 inches above the plants for 16 hours per day. I’ve mounted them so I can move them up or down to accommodate plant height.
It’s a really good idea to label your containers the moment you put a seed in them. While eventually you’ll be able to tell the difference between a pepper plant and a tomato plant – it’ll be challenging to tell the difference between a roma and a bush tomato or a hot and a sweet pepper. Whether it’s a piece of tape on the container, a sharpie scribble on the side or a fancy copper plated marker – label your containers!
At this point, you may be wondering is it worth it? Good question. There’s no doubt that it takes time, energy and maybe a bit of investment (if you’re considering lighting) to start your own plants. My recommendation is that if you don’t love it, don’t do it. There are so many great options for buying healthy, strong plants at planting time, that the only reasons to start your own are because you enjoy it or you’re growing specialty seeds. Sure there’s a price difference – $2.79 for a seed pack vs $3.00 per plant at the garden centre. But $3.00/plant is still considerably cheaper than $3.00/lb of tomatoes at the store.
So, what are you gonna do?