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Spring ahead by seed-starting

Last spring, these pole bean seedlings were grown indoors to give them a head start in the garden. Special to  (Susan Mulvihill Special to)
Last spring, these pole bean seedlings were grown indoors to give them a head start in the garden. Special to (Susan Mulvihill Special to)

One of my favorite activities this time of year is starting vegetables and flowers from seeds. It might seem like a lot of trouble but it allows me to grow unusual varieties that aren’t available at nurseries, and it provides me with a lot of enjoyment as well.

Seed-starting is a lot easier than you might think. All you need are a few basic supplies, a garden plan and a calendar so you can plant the seeds at the right time.

The best place to find that information – along with the planting depth, spacing of seedlings and number of days until harvest – is on the back of the seed packet.

The vegetables I start from seed are tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash, melons, onions, beans, peas and corn.

I start those last four crops indoors because we have a lot of birds in our garden that like to nibble on newly sprouted seeds. That means the plants need a head start before they are transplanted outdoors.

I sow lettuce, carrots, parsnips, beets, Swiss chard and basil directly into the garden, and cover them with bird netting.

To start seeds indoors, use clean, shallow planting containers such as plastic flats or milk cartons cut in half lengthwise. Fill the containers with a soil-less germination mix, which can be found at garden centers. It helps to pre-moisten the mix with warm water before planting the seeds.

Once the seeds are planted, I sprinkle a light dusting of finely milled sphagnum moss over the surface to prevent damping-off disease. This is a fungus that can kill your seedlings very quickly.

Label the flats and place a plastic cover over them to increase the humidity. You shouldn’t have to water the soil again until the cover comes off after the seeds have sprouted. The soil should stay lightly moist but not soggy.

Of the seeds that I start indoors, some veggies like tomatoes and eggplants need a warmer soil temperature in order to germinate.

Years ago, gardeners would place their planted seeds on the top of their refrigerator to keep the soil warm. Nowadays, appliances are well insulated so you won’t find much warmth on top of your fridge.

The easiest way to warm up the soil is to use a seed-starting heat mat, which can be found at local garden centers and online. The heat mat, which is placed underneath the flats, has a thermostat that can be set at the optimum temperature recommended on the seed packet.

Once the planted flats are ready to go, I place them under lights for about 16 hours a day. You can use cool fluorescent lights or grow lights. If you don’t have either, place the covered, planted flats in a sunny location and keep them out of drafts.

After the seeds have germinated – and what a delightful sight that is – remove the cover and monitor the soil moisture. When the seedlings have their true leaves, give them a half-strength liquid fertilizer to help them grow.

Check the seed packet to learn when it will be safe to transplant the seedlings into the garden.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via e-mail at

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