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Starting your own plants from seed is economical. More importantly, it’s fun

DO YOU REMEMBER the first time you grew something from seed? I asked some of my friends that question, and it was wonderful to see the answers. Many were introduced to seeds in elementary school, where they proudly grew a bean, a pea, or a sunflower in a paper cup for science class. Some were taught by their parents, and grew easy, happy flowers like marigolds or nasturtiums—and continue to cherish those plants to this day. Some didn’t come to the joys of gardening from seed until they were adults. None of them has grown tired of the almost magical quality of a seed; how something so small can become a plant that feeds us, a beautiful flower, a mighty shade tree. One friend summed it up thus: “My mum gave me nasturtium seeds when I was little. I tended that little patch of sunshine like crazy. Even picked ants out of the soil…I felt like I was tending a miracle.” Exactly.

The impatient gardener likes to buy plants already started at garden centres—and there is nothing wrong with that—but growing from seed has a number of advantages. The first is economics. A package of seed costs a few dollars and in most cases yields many, many plants. The exceptions would be something unusual like the Atlantic Giant Pumpkins bred by the late Howard Dill, or the seed of the most diva-like of flowers, the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis) or other new or rare plants.

Growing from seed opens up a whole world of new, (or old), exciting varieties to choose from. Let’s use tomatoes as an example. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of commercially available tomato varieties through seed companies. You can choose tomatoes that are disease resistant; that are short-season; that range in size from petite grape or cherry tomatoes to giant beefsteak types; that come in colours from red to yellow, orange, green, purple, black, brown, or pink, with variations and combinations of colours. But if you go to most garden centres to buy tomato transplants, you’ll usually be presented with half a dozen or so varietal choices, and nothing unusual, new or exotic. To get the variety, you need to grow from seed. And although many seed packages do hold a lot of seed, perhaps more than you need (especially if you want 10 different types of tomatoes), if you share a seed order with a friend or two, you can each have a portion of a package of seed. And best of all, as we all wait for spring to really arrive, we can start some plants indoors and watch them grow, and be ahead of the game when it finally is warm enough to transplant into our gardens.

Growing plants from seed indoors is a good way to get a head start on the spring’s gardening, plus chase away the winter blahs.

If you’re new to growing from seed, start with some easy choices of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Salad greens, beets, radish, chives, oregano, basil, and dill are great plants for beginners, and you can harvest and enjoy small amounts in late winter and early spring before you can grow outside. Certain vegetable and herb species don’t like transplanting, including beans and peas, cilantro, parsley, corn, and root crops such as carrots, parsnips, beets and radish. Avoid growing biennial or perennial flowers—these will need to be nurtured carefully this growing year in a special nursery area of your garden while they grow and develop and won’t flower until the following year (for biennials) or even several years from now (for perennials).

What you need for successful indoor seeding

Seeds: It goes without saying that you need seeds, but let me stress: for best success, you need fresh seeds. Although many species of seeds will germinate years after they were produced—think of weed seedlings erupting in freshly turned ground, after laying in wait for many years!—for best success you want seeds that were produced in the previous growing year.

Containers: Gardeners like to be conscientious and recycle items they’ve used in other years, which is fine as long as you have thoroughly cleaned and disinfected those plant pots, seedling flats, and other tools. If you want to go with new items, you can purchase biodegradable seeding flats or pots, or you can repurpose egg crates, milk and juice containers, takeout food containers…again, the main thing is to make sure the containers are clean before you start planting in them.

Labels: Let me spare you some frustration. You need labels, whether store purchased or made from recycled Popsicle sticks or from seed packages. You will NOT remember what you planted where or when. I’ve been there. Putting the plant name and the date planted on each label helps you to track exactly what your seeds are doing—and you can record this in the garden journal you started after our last issue.

The dirt on soil: A bag of potting medium is not expensive, and it is also lightweight, weed-free and pathogen-free and designed to encourage good growth in seedlings. It’s not so much soil as it is usually a mixture of ground peat moss, perlite, and compost. Buy a bag for starting your seeds—even if your garden isn’t frozen solid or covered in three feet of snow, you’re just better off using premixed seedling medium for good germination and seedling development. You’ll thank yourself when you don’t have to deal with diseases or pests attacking your seedlings in the house.

Location, location, location: Unless you have really wide window ledges, you’re not going to have much room to put flats of seedlings near windows. Although some types of seed want to be started in the dark for good germination, once sprouted, baby plants need lots of light. If they don’t get enough, they get straggly, long and spindly and susceptible to damping off and other diseases.

A dedicated plant stand or indoor ‘greenhouse’ can be a great investment for the serious seed grower. These usually come with growing lights included, which work quite well in lieu of adequate sunlight. You can purchase seed stands from garden supply companies, or you can build your own if you’re handy—or have a handy spouse. The main thing is to make sure it’s sturdy and wide enough to handle several flats of soil and seeds on each shelf. You don’t want it to be knocked over by a pet. I can attest to what an absolute mess happens when seed flats get spilled out on the floor.

And now, it’s time to begin!

To start your seeds, fill containers to almost full with dampened, but not sodden, potting medium. Don’t press the soil down to compact it. If using seeding flats, make small lines of furrows in the soil, and put seeds in, one at a time, at a ratio of no more than 3-5 seeds per inch. Resist the urge to put a lot of seeds into a container, especially if you’re going to be transplanting—it’s not a lot of fun pricking out a few seedlings from a tangle of hundreds, and if there isn’t good air circulation around small stems, you’re setting up conditions for disease to strike.

Keep the soil damp, but not soaking wet. Often all you need to do is spritz with a misting bottle once or twice a day, depending on how warm and dry your house is. If using a seeding flat that comes with a clear plastic dome, remove the dome daily for short periods of time so that it doesn’t get too humid in your miniature greenhouse. Don’t place such flats in direct sunlight with the cover firmly on, as tiny seedlings can easily be killed by the amount of heat being held in by the cover.

If you did manage to grow too many seedlings, use a pair of manicure scissors to thin out your crop by cutting the weakest plants off at soil level. Practise plant tough love.

Once your little plants have at least two sets of leaves, they can be carefully transplanted to larger containers if you’re growing for transplanting outside after frost is past; handle seedlings only by their leaves, never by their fragile stems. Now all you have to do is wait for warmer weather, or, if you’re growing herbs or veggies for indoors, for them to get a little bigger. Once you taste your own homegrown anything, you never look at store produce quite the same.

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