Now’s a great time to get ready for spring planting. And no, that doesn’t mean tossing dahlia bulbs into the piles of snow in your garden and hoping that when—or is it if—warm weather ever arrives you’ll have bounteous blooms.
No, you can jump-start spring by starting seeds indoors. It’s all relatively easy and oh so nice to see the pale green stalks of germinating seeds as they pop through the soil—a true sign that winter is not forever.
“Right now, I have seeds sprouting—some on a heat mat—in my utility room,” said Maureen Phillips, who currently is germinating cool season crops under lights such as spinach, lettuce, leeks, shallots and Brussels sprouts. “This is also the time to start cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli plants."
Soon Phillips plans on starting warm season crops like eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, peppers and Swiss chard, which she said holds up better than spinach in the summer heat.
Germinating seedlings indoors when outside growing conditions are way too rough not only makes harvesting seasonal vegetables and flowers much more quickly, but it also saves money (a packet of seeds, soil and containers for the seeds is a lot cheaper than buying plants in the summer that someone else started in late winter. Another plus, is that growing your own offers a greater variety of more unusual plants.
One might find it difficult to locate Yugoslavian Red Lettuce with its bright-green cupped leaves splashed with rosy-red (1 packet is $3.95), the deep purple and red golden veined Royale Purple Bicolor Salpiglossis with flower heads measuring 2 ½ inches (40 pellets for $5.95) or Neon Lights Swiss Chard (a packet of 100 seeds runs $4.95) at a big box store’s garden center.
“When you pick your seeds, choose vegetables that you can start inside like carrots, corn, cauliflower, onions, Swiss chard and sweet potatoes,” said Leslie Rodriguez, nursery supervisor at Chesterton Feed & Garden in Chesterton. “The best time to start those is between March 11 and 25. We call these cold crops because you can transplant them around the middle of April or so.”
If you have a sunny window, said Rodriguez, you don’t need grow lights. But, the store does offer light systems for those who don't have large enough windows.
Chesterton Feed & Garden and most other garden centers also sell seed starting kits. They can range from basic—a 72-cell plastic trays that are then filled with healthy starting mediums such as Fertilome Ultra Mix before planting several seeds in each of the cells to more complex such as ones with self-watering trays and greenhouse covers designed to speed up germination. For super simple, even egg cartons can do.
Generally speaking, annual flowers and vegetables are the easiest to grow, and their seeds germinate quickly. Once the seeds are planted, place the trays in a warm room with lots of light. According to the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service’s Department of Horticulture, plants which have been growing indoors cannot be planted abruptly into the garden without danger of injury and so need to be hardened before planting outdoors. When the last chance for frost is over, help make the transfer from indoors to outside, first by moving the trays outside just for a few hours every day, increasing the time until they are capable of being outdoors full time.
For those just contemplating starting seeds indoors, Phillips has some suggestions.
“Newbies should start with sterile containers and a non-soil planting mix to avoid seedling damping off,” she said. “Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and chard are a good seeds to start with.”
She also notes that not all plants can be germinated indoors.
“Radishes, turnips, carrots, peas, squash, pumpkins, melons and beans are best direct sown when the snow melts and the soil warms,” Phillips said. “You can control that somewhat by planting them outdoors in large containers.”
And for those who really get the seed starting bug, every year at their Garden Show, the Porter County Master Gardeners Association hosts a Seed and Bulb Exchange
“It’s a great source for all kinds of seeds,” Phillips said. “This year folks had 9,000 packets of seed to choose from as well as the expertise of Master Gardeners on how to start and grow them.”
Information about the show can be found at pcgarden.info/SBE.html.