Let it grow!

closeup of seedling

Spring is upon us, and some of you may be getting anxious to get outdoors and do some landscaping and gardening. While it might not be quite warm enough to start your vegetable garden, did you know that you can start some of your plants indoors right now? Besides being fun, starting seeds indoors for plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants is a great way to save money. Since these plants originate from countries with warm, sunny weather, they need a lot of extra time to grow. Hence the reason why you would buy these plants as transplants during the growing season here in Michigan.

Seed starting kits do exist and they can be convenient, but expensive. These kits will come with several containers, a tray with lid, and starting soil.

seed starting kit

Cropped image. SITS Girls, Flickr. CC license.

However, organizing your own seed starting kit is simple and affordable since you are able to customize it to your own budget and liking. Here are the details to get you started:

Materials needed

  • Growing medium
  • Containers and tray
  • Light source
  • Water
  • Seeds

Getting started

  • Growing medium:
    A growing medium is your seed starting “mix”. Your mix is fresh, sterile and contains fertilizer. It is not soil. You want to avoid using soil because it may contain weed seeds and insects, and can promote disease and fungus. Also, seedlings are very fragile and will require a light and fluffy medium that will also hold a lot of moisture. The mix will give your seedlings the best start for the season. Mix is commonly found and sold in bags, or as pellets of peat that expand when wet.Before you plant your seeds in the mix, make sure it is saturated with moisture. One easy way to do this is by combining the mix with water in a large bucket and scooping it out to fill your containers. Fill your containers to an inch below the top and settle the soil by tapping it against a hard surface. Do not pack the soil mix down. After you place your seed in your container of soil, you can add about ¼ inch of soil to the top. Don’t forget: 1 seed = 1 plant.
  • Containers and tray:
    Containers come in many different shapes and varieties. Common containers include plastic pots and flats, as well as peat pots. To save money, you can use some items that you may have around the house. Yogurt cups or any other small containers are great options; just be sure to sanitize them with a 1:10 ratio of bleach to water before use. You will also need to drill small holes in the bottom to allow for drainage.Some containers will break down in the soil, so you can plant the entire pot and plant together, avoiding disruption of the root system and further weakening your plant. These are usually shaped as compressed peat, or you can DIY your own using newspaper. Keep in mind that your container only needs to be about 3 to 4 inches across.The last component you will is a tray to hold your containers. The tray is not only used to collect water but also for watering (I’ll touch on this in a bit).
  • When to start:
    You will need to do a little research before you get started. You will need to determine how soon you can plant your seeds indoors. The best place to find this information is on the back of your seed packet. Some packets will tell you a good month, while others will tell you a good time. For most of metro Detroit, our last frost date is approximately May 29. So if the seed packet gives you a time, let’s say “4 to 6 weeks before last frost date,” you will have to count back the weeks to determine when to start indoors. In this example, that would be the first to third week of April.
  • Light source:
    If you happen to have some window space, your transplants will need a good south-facing window. Second best would be an east- or west-facing window. Don’t place your plants near a window before germination has begun (germination is the time period between seed to sprout); the cold night air can affect germination rates. Plants such as peppers and tomatoes require 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit to get germination started.Until they germinate, they won’t need the direct sunlight; the only thing they require is warmth. To gently warm the soil, place your tray on top of a refrigerator, dryer or another heat source such as a waterproof heating pad. Once your seeds germinate and the sprouts reach one-half inch, you can remove the heat source and place the seeds near your sunny window. Be sure that the temperature in that area stays between at least 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.For optimum results, consider investing in a fluorescent light source to ensure that the seedlings are getting enough light. Make sure the light is placed close to the plants, about 4 to 6 inches away. Keep in mind that you may need to adjust the height of your light source as your plant begins to grow.
  • Water:
    From the moment you plant your seed until germination, use a spray bottle on a fine mist setting to dampen the soil. Place the plastic cover (or a sheet of plastic, plastic bag, etc.) over the top of the container to maintain moisture and humidity.Once your seeds sprout, keep the cover off and water the seedlings from the bottom. This is done by pouring water into the tray that your containers are sitting in. You should avoid watering the soil from the top of the container. This could damage or displace your seedling, as well as increase the chances for plant diseases. It isn’t a bad idea to have a gentle, light breeze blowing air in between the plants to eliminate excess moisture and humidity.
  • Seeds:
    You may have noticed that some local grocery and home improvement stores have started stocking their seasonal aisle with seeds and gardening supplies. Nurseries that are open for the season will also have seeds available for purchase. Don’t hesitate to look online for a wider variety too!

Time to go outside!

When the weather has been consistently 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above during the night, it is time to “harden off” your plants to get them ready to be planted. So what does “hardening off” mean?

Hardening off is a process that consists of slowing acclimating your plants to the outdoor conditions they will need to be accustomed to. If you don’t harden them off, they will die. But don’t worry! This step is easy to do.

Take your plants outside and place them in a shady spot for 2 or 3 hours a day at first, then gradually increase the time until they are outside for a full day. Introduce them to sunlight in the morning first, then all day long. This process should only take about a week. It’s always better to plant later than too soon, so don’t feel that you have to plant them in one week if they don’t seem strong enough.

When you are ready to plant them in your garden, do so in the evening when the sun isn’t as intense, and be sure to keep them well watered. After that, keep an eye on your garden just as you would normally do. Before you know it, you’ll have big, juicy tomatoes and lots of hot peppers that are ready to be harvested!

– Joohi Castelvetere is a nutrition and food scientist and a mother to three amazing children. She’s also a Parenting Program volunteer.

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