Seed Starting in Winter

When May rolls around and you have spring fever, we’ll have a fantastic selection of locally-grown, neonicotinoid-free vegetables and herbs at the ready to fill your gardens. But there is something very satisfying that comes from growing your own plants from seed. And not only is it easy, but it is a great way to forget about the dreariness of winter while you concentrate on nurturing life!

So when do you plant? The short answer is about six to eight weeks before the last frost date. In Maryland that would be Mothers Day. Well, technically. That is being super-safe. In the Annapolis area, we can pretty much plant most everything by late April. So that means that you will want to sow around mid-February. But check the seed packet to make sure. An important note, though, is that if you are planting cool-weather vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, peas, cabbage, etc., those should be started NOW, since they are transplanted outside in early to mid-March. Lettuce, spinach, and arugula should be direct sown into the garden or outdoor container in late February. They don’t like to be started inside, generally.

Now for the supplies…and we carry them all! All you really need is growing trays and growing medium and, if you’re feeling fancy, a grow light. We carry several kinds of trays, from frills-free to domed top to peat pellets. Fill the trays with your growing medium. We highly recommend Espoma® Organic Seed Starter Premium Potting Mix because it is light, airy, and retains moisture beautifully. Fill the containers up to the top with the soil medium and then soak it with warm water. It will settle some, but you want it about a quarter of an inch from the top of the cell to give enough of a lip to prevent the seeds from washing out of the container during watering. Label each tray carefully. It’s easy to lose track of what you planted and seedlings look remarkably similar.

Follow the sowing instructions from each seed packet, but you will always want to sow three or four seeds per container. Once they all come up and get their second set of leaves, you can thin them out with scissors…never by pulling them up, which could damage the one remaining plant…leaving one plant per chamber. At this point, you should cover your pots with the plastic lid or plastic wrap to keep the seeds in a warm, humid place. Light isn’t important until they sprout. Once they do, take off the cover and either move the seedlings to a bright spot in the house or invest in a grow light. The advantage of a grow light is that you can give them twelve to sixteen hours of light per day, which makes them grow faster and stronger. We carry a variety of grow lights and heated mats to help the germination process along. If the seedlings get leggy, meaning they are tall and spindly, they are not getting enough light.

Check them daily for moisture. Water should be at room temperature and, if possible, water from the bottom of the tray, letting the moisture wick up, rather than watering from overhead. You might want to invest in a few small fans to blow a constant breeze over your seedlings, which will help to prevent fungus and will strengthen the stems. If you don’t have a fan, just lightly pass your hands through the seedlings a few times per day, allowing them to bend and then pop back up. This is also the time to use a liquid fertilizer on a weekly basis. As you water every day, it is easy for the nutrients to leach out of the soil, and they need to be replaced. As they grow, the plants will start to crowd each other, so you will most likely have to repot them to larger pots and space them apart. Every time you do this, you essentially double the space you need to grow. Bear this in mind before you plant your seedlings, or you might find yourself crowded out of the house because they will take up so much space!

About one week before transplanting your seedlings to the garden or into outside containers, you’ll have to harden off your plants, which are used to being indoors and would wilt if suddenly planted outside. Take them outdoors for an hour or so each day, ideally on a protected porch, and limit the direct sun for the first few days. Gradually increase the amount of time outdoors. You’ve worked hard to grow these little babies, so you don’t want to rush them outside and burn in the sun.

Don’t over or underwater and make sure they have plenty of light. That’s really all there is to it. It is a pretty forgiving process. We have everything you need to successfully grow your own seedlings…growing medium, trays, pots, fertilizer, grow lights, heated mats, etc. And don’t forget the seeds! We have a wide variety of annuals, perennials, herbs, and vegetables of every kind! Make this the year that you explore different and exotic varieties and experiment in the garden.