By Sarah Coulber
Reprinted from March/April 2011 Canadian Wildlife Magazine
It’s that time of year when we wonder if we’ll we get another few weeks of snow or glimpses of spring. More snow can be fun, after all, who can resist the chance to build one more snow bear? But there is something exciting about getting those first tastes of spring – smelling the thawing earth and hearing the call of a returning migrant bird.
Even if the signs of spring aren’t here yet, many a gardener is quietly preparing. Light fixtures are being set up, containers are getting filled with soil, seeds are being sprinkled and satisfied smiles are creeping across faces with the knowledge that new life, and a new growing season, is at hand.
It’s pretty amazing that a teeny tiny seed holds the potential for creating a giant tree, let alone a vegetable plant or native perennial. Oftentimes, all that is needed is a little water and a little light and presto – new life is on its way to fulfilling some beautiful blueprint.
Growing plants from seed offers more selection than buying plants and can bring satisfaction in nurturing new life. It can also be much cheaper, depending on how many plants you like to grow each year. If you would like to try growing plants indoors and wish to get a jump start on the season, here are some general steps to consider.
- Read instructions. Each seed has its own germinating requirements. Many annuals we grow, such as tomato and basil plants, are pretty straight forward. Others, like many of our natives, have adapted to their northern environment and will only germinate after periods of cold and warm, protecting their tender shoots from changeable late winter/early-spring weather. Others need their seed coat slightly scuffed; mimicking what would naturally occur in some animals’ bellies before coming out the other end. So, while some seeds can be stored for years in an envelope in your basement before planting, others need a helping hand to mimic natural cycles. This is when it is helpful to read the instructions on seed packets or refer to books.
- Get your materials ready. You will need special seed starting mix for starting seeds and containers to put them in. Also, grow lights can be preferable to a sunny window, as it helps plants grow straight up. You can buy ready-made shelves with lights installed, but I put mine over an old table supported with wooden blocks at its four corners, with a few more blocks at the ready to raise their height as plants get taller. I generally keep the lights several inches above the plants, but I do vary it depending on how cold my basement is at the time and the type of lights used. I reuse a plastic sheet each year to cover my table, and have old trays and roasting pans to put my containers on. They come in handy for both catching excess water when watering but also when hardening off the plants, allowing me to carry in and out several pots in one go. You’ll also need a marker to identify which pots are growing which plants, as it’s easy to lose track.
- Plant. Fill your containers with the soil-like mix and water until moist. Sprinkle small seeds and cover with mix or sand if need be, then gently spray the area with water to moisten the soil without displacing the seeds. Larger seeds can be pushed into the soil at the required depth. Some people cover with clear plastic to keep moisture in. Once you see seedlings, remove the cover and start the cycle of keeping your lights on for approximately 12-16 hours a day, adjusting accordingly for those seeds that require different conditions, like those which require light before seedlings emerge, for example.
- Thin out or transplant. If your seedlings are crowded, snip a few to make room for the ones that look strongest. If your seedlings are in shallow containers, repot them once the cotyledons (the first visible leaves) appear, or the first true set of leaves (the leaves that come after the cotyledons which look like the actual leaves of that plant). Doing it when they are young and the roots are small helps to minimize plant stress with less tearing on the roots, although it can be done successfully with larger plants. Shortly thereafter, apply a mild natural fertilizer approximately once every two weeks.
- Harden off. As your plants outgrow the lights, you may wish to relocate to a window sill with suitable lighting. Do this when the sky is overcast, as the shock of full sun can be too much at first. Otherwise, keep your shades partly closed or net curtains pulled across for the first day or two. Once the air outside is warm enough, take your plants outside and leave them for about ½ hour in a spot that, for the first week or so, is sheltered from the wind and direct sun. The next day, one hour, the day after that two hours, etc. until you are comfortable leaving them outside all the time. Remember to keep them sheltered on nights with a frost. Plant when the soil is warmed enough, keeping in mind that some plants like warmer soil than other.
There is a lot of variability with methods and time of year for planting seeds, partly due to the nature of the seed and partly due to the preference of the gardener. There is also variability with location, as sometimes it makes sense to start them outdoors directly in the garden soil or cold frame.
Growing plants from seed can be very rewarding and I’ve found that it pays to read about the plant and the process, but that it never hurts to experiment a little…you never know what you’ll discover along the way!