Nothing kicks the late winter blues like preparing for spring! If you are a gardener (and if you’re not, what better year to give it a try!) starting your seeds inside is on the top of that list. There are so many great reasons to start your garden seeds indoors besides the fact that long Wisconsin winters nearly make it a necessity. Of course you can always buy your seed starts (I usually end up buying a few no matter what), but that can get expensive quickly. Willy Street Co-op does have a fantastic selection of seedlings but as a man on a budget, I can’t buy all of my plants ready to go in the ground.
Starting seeds indoors is much easier than it seems. Once you get all the equipment you need, it is extremely affordable as well. Borrowing some guidelines from Mother Earth News, here is a great 11-step process to get you growing indoors:
- Sow What?
Select your plants to start indoors wisely. Not all plants benefit from this process. Focus on plants that have a long growing season, are heat-loving and need time to mature. In Wisconsin, most plants can benefit from starting indoors, with the exception of beans, corn and root crops.
- Seed Matters.
Start with high-quality seeds and varieties suited to your region’s conditions. This is easy if you buy your seeds from the Co-op. We carry Seed Savers and they have by far the most unique collection of heirloom seeds of the highest quality.
- Timing Matters.
Don’t start your seeds too early! I’ve been guilty of this and then your plants become root-bound and weak. Check out the UW Extension website (uwex.edu) to find timelines for planting in our region.
- Seed Housing.
You need two- to three-inch-deep containers with drainage holes to hold your seed-starting mix. You can really get creative here but I simply bought a few large trays with “cells” and a plastic cover (all of which are available at the Co-op) and I reuse them every year. Just make sure to sterilize them if you plan to reuse them.
- The Planting Mix.
It’s important to use a loose, well-drained mix for indoor seed starting. This is a topic that could easily fill up an entire book! Bottom line for me is that I avoid peat moss due to its negative environmental impact. The Co-op has a nice seed-starting mix made by Fox Farm.
- Feed and Water Wisely.
Instead of watering AFTER you plant your seeds, mix your seed-starting mix with water in a bucket a few hours before planting. Fill your containers with the saturated mix and place two to three seeds per cell. Cover the seeds with either a dome or plastic wrap until the seedlings emerge and then remove the cover. Water seedlings gently when the soil feels dry to the touch, either with a mister or by filling the tray below the cells with water.
- Prevent Damping Off.
Too much moisture and humidity can encourage damping off, a fungal disease. Prevent this problem by adding a half-inch layer of light-colored sphagnum moss to the top of your seed-starting mix.
- Warm Up to Heat Mats.
Ideal germination temperature for most vegetable seeds is between 70 and 90ºF—a range most homescan’t provide steadily in winter. Encourage fast sprouting by providing warmth from below your seedling flats, which is easiest to do with an electric germination mat (about $40).
- Light Right.
Seedlings need brighter light than the average home can provide in late winter. Investing in a grow light will help considerably to achieve the 14-18 hours of light per day that seedlings need.
- Strong and Steady.
To keep your seedlings growing strong and healthy, pinch out the smallest seedlings in each cell, lightly brush your hand over the seedlings daily to promote sturdy stems and move them to larger containers if need be.
- Transitional Tactics.
After four to six weeks, your seedlings will have grown into sturdy plants ready for the outside world. Assuming the weather is right, it is time to transition them outside. Do this slowly and incrementally by “hardening off” your seedlings. To do this, keep your transplants in a sheltered location, such as on a porch, for about a week, bringing them in at night and gradually moving them into brighter sunlight each day. After your plants have been hardened off, they’re ready to grow in the garden, where they’ll reward you with a bounty of tasty, nutritious food.