Nowadays, the seed catalogs start to fly before the snow does. It can be hard to focus on Christmas shopping done with visions of heirloom watermelons and container carrots dancing in your eyes.
But in January, it’s time to take down the tree and set up to start seeds. In the Midwest, the short growing season means many vegetable crops and annual flowers need a head start indoors, lasting anywhere from 6 to 14 weeks, depending on what it says on the seed packet. Each variety has its own needs, so it’s important to follow the seed packet directions for time, depth and other requirements.
Of course, a greenhouse makes seed-starting easier, allowing long hours of daylight to reach growing sprouts. If you have one, it may be possible to get some crops started without supplemental lighting. But for most of us, seed starting will require a light setup.
I use inexpensive fluorescent tubes from the hardware store; a typical home gardener has no real need to pay for special-spectrum grow lights. You can buy or build a special rack but you also can hang tubes from the basement ceiling or in any out-of-the-way place (I knew a gardener who slung lights under her dining-room table). The important thing is to hang the fixtures from chain with largish links so you can keep the lights just 3 to 4 inches above the growing plants by raising them a link at a time.
Most seeds need an evenly warm, moist, sterile environment to germinate. Since tiny seedlings are highly vulnerable to fungus infections and other diseases, it’s essential to use a fine, sterilized seed-starting mix. Make sure your containers are clean and sterile too; dunk them in a solution of one cup of bleach to a gallon of water.
I often start seeds in pots I roll out of newspaper, which will break down by transplanting time. Any part of a newspaper you don’t read, such as the auto ads, comes darn close to being sterile.
To save space, some people sow a flat of seeds close together and then prick out the best seedlings to transplant into larger pots. I don’t raise that many plants, so I usually just start seeds in 3- or 4-inch-wide pots, two or three to a pot, and thin out all but the strongest one.
After sowing the seeds in moistened seed-starting mix, I let the seeds germinate on my radiators (elevating the tray on a phone book or an upside-down muffin tin to keep the warmth gentle). Others find it’s warm enough atop the refrigerator. There are electric germination mats, but an ordinary heating pad is too hot. I cover the tray with a plastic bag to hold in humidity. You also can buy special seed-starting flats with a clear plastic dome.
It just takes a few days for most seeds to sprout. Once I see those flecks of green, I remove the plastic and move the tray under lights, and my new garden is on its way.