The arrival of March means that winter is finally coming to an end and Spring is just around the corner! However, temperatures may still be quite cold during the days and nights, and frost and snow still pose a threat to budding outdoor plants. While it’s not quite an ideal time to start planting your spring garden outside just yet, there are plenty of steps you can take to plan and get your plants off to a great start indoors while you await warmer, longer days that will promote beautiful blossoms outdoors. Starting fruit, vegetable, herb, and flower seeds indoors is easier than you think, and with a little knowledge and effort you can be well on your way to a beautiful Spring garden by the time it warms up outside!
Starting plants from seedlings is a rewarding, fun experience that ensures your plants’ future success outdoors. While many people choose to buy already established young plants to transplant to outdoor beds, growing your own from seeds indoors first can be more cost-effective, and you’ll reap the benefits of selecting from a larger variety of seed types, watching their progress each day, and providing just the right growing conditions that will make your young plants healthy and strong. March is the perfect time to start seeds indoors, as it can take anywhere from 6 to 10 weeks before your young plants are ready to be transplanted to outdoor beds.
When selecting your seeds, carefully read the packet for instructions on planting conditions as well as length of germination, and how long before your plants will be ready to be brought outside. Also, be sure to pay attention to the date-stamp on the packet; you want to make sure the seeds you purchase are fresh and no more than nine months from the date of use. You can also choose to purchase organic seeds, heirloom or rare varieties, or locally sourced seeds… the possibilities are endless! But as attractive as the pictures on the packets may be, your first priority when selecting seeds should always be quality.
You can’t start seedlings indoors without one of the most important elements- soil! Starting your seeds with the right soil mixture makes a world of difference to their health and progress. You can buy specific mixes made for seedlings or germination, or look for potting soil with a good mixture of sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite, and organic matter that is light and fluffy in texture. If the soil is too heavy or dense, young seedlings will have a difficult time pushing through the soil. Fluffier soil also allows for more moisture absorption and better oxygen flow, resulting in plants with deeper, healthier root systems.
Now that you have your seeds and proper soil, the next step to planting seedlings indoors is determining the type of container you wish to use. Many great options are available at your local gardening supply stores, including trays with anywhere from 6 to 72 or more individual cells, larger plastic pots, or individual seed pots made from peat or other biodegradable substances. When selecting a container for your young sprouts, keep in mind how many plants you plan to start, as well as how deep their root systems will grow. If you select a container that is too small, your young plant will quickly outgrow its home before it’s ready to be transplanted properly, and this can cause poor blossom and fruit production later on. When sowing seeds in your containers, also remember that if too many seeds are started in each pot, it can be more difficult to separate the root systems later on during the transplanting period, causing shock and sometimes death to your plants. Peat pots are a great option to start seedlings in because when the time comes, they can be planting directly into your outdoor garden, eliminating the need to dig up your plant from its first container. There are many factors to keep in mind when selecting the proper container to start your seedlings in, but it is generally wise to select a container slightly larger than you think you would need to allow for more root growth and less shock during the transplanting period.
Now that you have all the materials gathered, it is time to start your seedlings! Follow these simple steps, and soon you’ll have young plants ready in time for warmer Spring weather.
How To Start Seedlings:
- Fill your containers with the soil and water thoroughly until the soil mixture is wet, but not soaking.
- Plant the seeds. Refer to your seed packet for specific depths and spacing. Many novice gardeners make the mistake of planting their seeds too deep in the soil, so you can err on the side of caution and plant them a little bit less than the recommended depth. You can always carefully add more potting soil around the seedlings later if need be.
- Provide warmth for your seedlings- they thrive in moist, warm soil! Many garden centers or supply stores sell heating mats just for this purpose, but there are other alternatives methods you can use to keep your seedlings warm. Try placing your containers on top of a refrigerator, near a warm oven, or a space by a fireplace or other heat source; you can even place a regular heating pad (set to a low temperature to avoid burning) beneath your containers for a short time period each day.
- Warmth is essential, as is incubation. Many cell trays come with a plastic lid to help enclose the plants and retain moisture, creating a greenhouse effect. If you’re using separate containers, you can create a simple incubator using a large plastic bag, or plastic wrap propped up around the containers.
- Provide water to your sprouts every few days. Use a gentle, wide-set mist from a spray bottle (filled with lukewarm or slightly warm water so as not to shock the plants), or you can set the container’s bottom in a shallow dish of water so the roots receive moisture immediately and tender new growth is not dislodged or disturbed. Be careful not to over-water your little plants though, as this can cause rotting or disease. Wait for the top soil to dry out just slightly, then gently water until damp but not soaking.
- Now comes the most difficult part- being patient! You may see your seeds begin to sprout within just a few days, or it might take up to 3 weeks for some plant varieties to germinate; again, refer to your seed packet information for specific times. Patience is key- do not overwater or otherwise “bother” your young plants too much, but provide enough moisture, warmth, and a little sunlight once the seedlings are established. Be careful with being overeager in exposing the seedlings to sunlight though- too much can dehydrate the tender young sprouts.
- After your seedlings have grown and are happy and healthy with a second set of leaves emerging, you can begin using a water-soluble fertilizer to promote stronger root development and more top growth. A general fertilizer product like a 15-15-15 mix will do, or you can find types suited for younger plants. It is best to dilute the mixture to a quarter or a third strength for young seedlings, gradually increasing the strength as they grow and establish stronger roots.
Growing your own seeds indoors might seem like a challenging task if you’ve never attempted it before, but it really isn’t all that difficult. Once you have the proper supplies, all it takes is a little planning and effort. Before you know it, your seedlings will be growing strong and fast indoors, and by the time the temperatures outdoors are warmer and the days are longer, you’ll be ready to transplant your plants into their permanent outdoor homes in your garden beds. March is the perfect time to get a head start on your spring garden. Starting your garden from the ground up (literally!) is one of the most fun, rewarding, and educational experiences anyone can have. Happy planting!