Seed starting basics: In which the divine mysteries of Mother Nature are disclosed

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Women in ancient Greece and Rome would start seeds in a dish to honor the demigod Adonis. The seedlings would sprout and grow quickly in time for the festival of Adonis, then collapse just as quickly when their roots became potbound. The spent dish gardens were tossed out after the eight-day festival to symbolize the brief life of the young paramour of the goddess Venus.

Modern women (and men, too, I suppose) may also be seized in late winter with the urge to grow something green and evocative of summer, something to remind us of the renewal of life, to delight in the knowledge that our corner of the earth really is turning toward the sun once again.

Growing your own Easter grass is one way to reenact the ritual of the Adonis cult; and, of course, starting garden seeds indoors is another, with the notable exception that we don’t want those seedlings to grow fast and die young. Even though entire books are written about the intricacies of successful seed starting, this month’s column and the next will give you all the information you need. Really. It’s not that complicated.

Seed packets tell you how many weeks to start those seeds indoors before transplanting to the garden in late May, and whether to soak them first to aid germination (always a good idea when recommended). Plants that only need four to six weeks can be started earlier if you are prepared to pot them up to accommodate their expanding roots (more on that next month). Figure on starting most seeds around mid to late March.

What you’ll need:

• Pots with drainage. You can poke holes in food containers, such as plastic tubs, the bottoms of pop bottles, or milk cartons; reuse pots from the garden center (be sure to wash them first so they don’t harbor microbes that will cause your seedlings to die tragically young); or, of course, buy new ones.

• Trays for the pots. Plastic trays sold for seed starting are inexpensive and usually come with a clear domelike cover. On the down side, they are generally flimsy and hard to carry without toppling their contents; you may want to use food-serving trays when you need to move them.

• A covering to hold in heat and moisture. Use something that is removable, of course, so you can let excess moisture evaporate. The above-mentioned trays come with covers, but clear plastic bags work too, or the tops of the pop bottles if you are using the bottoms.

•Seed-starting mix. You can make your own with compost, if you have it, but a bag of seed-starting mix is not too expensive and is sterilized so it’s disease-free, which is no small thing (see the above note about seedlings dying tragically young).

•A fluorescent shop light fixture. By this I mean a simple, inexpensive, two-bulb fixture that you can suspend with chains above your seedlings, adjusting the distance from the plants as they grow so the light is always only inches above them. Even if you have a sunny south window, your seedlings won’t get enough light from the sun alone to be strong and healthy; they’ll grow long, spindly and weak as they stretch toward the sun.

•An electric fan. Your seedlings will benefit from a little air movement for at least a couple of hours each day, such as provided by an oscillating fan on its lowest setting. This accomplishes three things: It speeds evaporation so moisture doesn’t linger on the leaves or soil surface and foster mildew; it disrupts any insects that may have found your little indoor garden, making it harder for them to settle in for a meal; and it “exercises” the plants to make them stronger. I kid you not. Your plants’ stems will be thicker if they get jostled a bit daily.

Getting things growing

The seed packet will tell you whether to scatter seeds on the surface or cover them with soil. To avoid washing seeds away or burying them unintentionally, water before you plant by pouring water into the tray after you have filled your containers, then wait until it wicks up through the soil and the surface feels moist. Add more water to the tray whenever the surface starts to get dry. If the seeds were scattered and not buried, you can keep them moist with a misting spray bottle.

Don’t worry about the amount of space between seeds at this point, you will thin them once they emerge. After planting, press down on the seeds to get them in firm contact with the soil; they will germinate more quickly if you do this.
Cover the pots loosely with your plastic bag or lid, but open it up or remove it whenever you see condensation. Keeping things moist but not too moist is important at this stage: not soggy, but not dry either.

Adjust your lights so they are barely above the soil, or as close as you can get them. Their heat will help the seeds germinate. Keep them lit night and day until seedlings emerge, then run them about 14–16 hours a day. If you don’t have a timer, just plug them in when you get up in the morning and unplug them when you go to bed.

As soon as the seedlings emerge, start thinning them to the recommended spacing (a tweezers might help). Don’t make the mistake I have made and try to transplant the thinnings; toss them in the compost.

The first set of leaves are called cotyledons, they’re like faux leaves—the plants don’t look like themselves yet. When the true leaves show up, you will easily tell your tomatoes from your basil. When the second set of true leaves comes out, or when the plants are a couple of inches high, remove the covers and start running the fan two to three hours a day. Continue to water from the bottom, but now that the roots are a little deeper, you can let the surface dry out a bit more to keep mold and mildew from growing.

Inspect your seedlings daily; if they look crowded, remove the smallest ones by snipping them off at the surface rather than pulling them out, to avoid disturbing the roots of the other plants. If you see any sign of insects or mildew, start running the fan all day.

But mostly, have faith that your little plants know what to do and just let them grow. And look for this column next month for the next steps, including how to prepare them for planting in your garden.

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