That's right! Believe it or not, even in our intense climate, it is possible to start your seeds during the winter. If you're looking to save money on your garden this year, try growing your own plants from the seeds instead of buying sprouted plants from a greenhouse. Since the growing season in the Northeast is shorter than most parts of the country, we especially benefit from seed starting instead of direct sowing because it allows the plants to grow and mature sooner than ground conditions will allow. Winter seed starting is a fun way to beat the cold weather blues, and can be a great learning experience for the little ones in your family!
Where should I start?
It is possible to start your seeds both in your home, and outside in the cold. You can use an outdoor winter sowing method, which requires a little more work up front but less maintenance overall, and still see great results in the spring.
For this post, we're going to focus on indoor seed starting because we think it's more exciting to watch the progress your plants are making! Plus, indoor starting makes it more convenient to monitor your plants, and make adjustments if something doesn't seem right - without going outside. Brr!
When should I start?
The best time to start your seeds depends on which flowers or veggies you are growing. The best planting dates can be found on the back of most seed packets. To get the best results, you should follow the given directions, but for many common plants you're safe to start planting in late February or early March. Start seeds of cool-season plants like lettuce, beets, kale, and spinach indoors 3-4 weeks before planting outside. Grow heat-loving plants like peppers and tomatoes indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost* date in your area. These timelines are pretty important, because plants can become weak if they are grown indoors for too long.
*Your USDA Hardiness Zone dictates when your last frost generally occurs.
What supplies do I need?
It may seem obvious, but the number one ingredient for healthy plants is quality seeds. Look for the "packed for" date on the seed pack, and be sure that they are fresh. You'll also see the seeds' germination requirements - like soil temperature, and whether the seeds need dark or light to germinate.
Other supplies you'll need include:
- Potting mix soil. A good seed starting mix will hold moisture, drain well, and have a fine texture that allows young leaves to emerge easily.
- Starter containers. Whether you make your own, purchase a kit, or recycle a container from the kitchen, they should be shallow containers that are only 2-3 inches deep.
- A heat source. Most plants will germinate just fine at room temperature, but warm-season plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, require a boost of heat to encourage sprouting. A sunny windowsill or the top of the refrigerator are good places to start seeds. You can also make your own warming mat if those spots aren't working.
Okay, I'm ready. What's next?
- Add water to your potting mix. It should be close to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.
- Fill your planting container with your potting mix and tap it down lightly, but don't compact.
- Sow seeds on the soil's surface, taking care to space them from 1/8 to 1/4 inch apart. Larger seeds will need a little more space, and a slightly larger container.
- Cover the seeds with a thin layer of your potting mix and press it down lightly. Seeds must be in contact with the soil to germinate. Remember: don't compact!
- Soak the seed tray in a shallow container of warm water until the soil mix is thoroughly moistened but not saturated. Then remove it from the water and allow it to drain thoroughly.
- Cover the seed tray (ideally with a plastic lid outfitted with air holes) and place it in a warm area to germinate.
What should I look for over the next few weeks?
Be sure to check your seed containers every day for signs of plant life. Once you see the seedlings break through the soil, move your plants to a place with lots of bright daylight, and if possible, good ventilation. At this point, you can remove your tray covers completely. Keep the soil moist, but not totally saturated - again, think of the 'wrung out sponge' texture. You probably will not need to water the seedlings every day. Too much water can cause fungus to grow, but too little will dry out those fragile roots. Using a spray bottle to water your tray helps avoid over-watering, especially if little hands are helping with the process.
When are the seedlings ready for transplanting?
The first 2 leaves that emerge from the seed are called seed leaves, or cotyledons. The third leaf to emerge is the plant's first 'true' leaf. When your plants have 2-4 of these true leaves, it's time to transplant them from the seed tray into small pots of their own, or, depending on timing, into the garden. There are a lot of resources available to help you design and plan for a garden based on the specific plants you'd like to grow. We recommend Miracle-Gro's Garden Planning web page, which has instructional videos and diagrams on topics like: which plants can live next to one another, which plants like sun or shade, and which plants will help keep pests away.
Help! I still have questions.
Don't worry - we know that starting your garden can be a daunting process, especially for first time planters. For help along the way, call or stop in to your local Valu and speak to one of our knowledgeable Associates. We have a wide range of garden items like soil, planters, tools, and seeds to help you get the job done.