Five Indoor Seed-Starting Tips from Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden

Select Seeds Suited for Indoor Sowing and Transplanting

Many crops start well indoors–and need the extra growing time in a protected space while the weather is still too cold–but a few grow better when sown directly in the garden. There aren’t any no-break rules here. Even carrots can be transplanted, though it’s not generally recommended. Especially if you are trying a crop for the first time, read the seed packet for instructions on which method typically works best. Pay attention, too, to the days to maturity information and your crop’s cold tolerance to help decide where and when to sow.

Start with Good Materials

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Many seeds are viable for more than one year, but members of the onion family are notoriously short-lived. Pictured here, I sowed the far corner with fresh onion seeds and the near corner with seeds only 1 year-old. Barely any of the old seeds germinated.
  • Clean your seed-starting containers with a 1:9 bleach:water solution or soapy water.
  • Use a sterile grow medium formulated for seed-starting.
  • For best results, use fresh seeds. (See this link to a chart on seed viability and a great discussion on the difference between viability and vigor. More info here.)

Water Wisely

Keep your planting medium evenly moist until your seeds sprout, then let it dry out slightly between watering. In no instance should it be soggy or bone dry. Be gentle if you water on top and use a mister or similar method. Bottom watering avoids the problem of dislodging seeds and young transplants and helps prevent diseases.

Get the Light Right

This one is Margaret Roach’s most emphasized tip. Seedlings will need supplemental lighting–more than they’ll likely get on your windowsill–or they’ll grow tall and spindly.

For Perkins Park Gardeners: What to do if you don’t have a fancy grow light set up and still want to sow your own seeds for transplanting?

    • Try inexpensive shop lights. I’ve had reasonable success growing seedlings with a couple of shop lights purchased for around $15 at Ocean State.
    • Squeeze one or two cell packs on your windowsill and supplement with a simple clamp light fixture (bulb separate). Set them outside on warm-enough days, taking care to harden them off (see next tip) along the way.
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      Lettuce seedlings grown on a windowsill get a little long and floppy, but do all right if you don’t have to hold them long indoors.
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      But seedlings quickly dry out and outgrow their small egg carton confines.

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      Here’s another windowsill setup, fashioned out of a recycled cell pack and a milk carton, that gives seedling roots more room to grow.

Take Time to Transplant with Care

Harden off plants before you transplant them to their final space in the garden. They’ll need to gradually acclimate to outdoor conditions, especially to the sun. Start with no more than 1 hour outside in direct sun on the first day (not midday) and gradually increase the time of outdoor exposure over the course of about a week. You’ll know you’ve overdone it if you see bleached or brown and crispy patches on your plants’ leaves. Alternatively, some people like to choose overcast days, leaving them outside during daytime hours for a few days.

Once you’ve gotten your plants hardened off, make sure you’re not rushing to get your plant in the garden too early, before you are reasonably clear of of unsuitable weather.


For more seed-starting tips (and more):

A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach (2019).

For a wide range of seed-starting information see Margaret Roach’s website.

 

Spring In the Wings

Overall, this winter hasn’t been a bad one here on the South Shore–right?–but it seems to be going out with hooks.

So I’ve put together a list of a few garden-related doings to get us to the end. After all, opening day at PPCG is only a little more than a month away, and then we’ll be within easy reach of peas.

Boston’s Community Garden Scene

Next week on Wednesday, February 27, the Trustees, which owns and operates the largest chunk of community gardens in Boston, is showcasing a documentary film about Boston’s community gardens at More Than Words bookstore. Pre-registration recommended. Reduced rates for members.

Gardening Aside

By the way, More Than Words is one of my favorite indoor spaces, a used bookstore run as a nonprofit, so if you’re just looking for a nice place to get out of the cold, go check it out. I don’t know their schedule this year, but in the past they’ve held big sales on/around March 17. (And while I’m on the topic of used bookstores, have you been to the Montague Bookmill in western Massachusetts? It’s a great road trip destination with a few good hiking spots nearby.)

Countertop of Greens

Grow a crop of microgreens before you need your sunny/lamp-lit spaces for seedlings. Here’s my favorite how-to video. Or sign up for Holly Hill Farm’s workshop on growing microgreens on March 9 from 1 – 3. Or buy a bunch of greens and shoots at their weekly farm stand. See their website for details; locations vary.DSC_1648

Season Extender

Do you have a little yard space? Holly Hill Farm is also hosting a workshop on building cold frames on March 9 in the morning. Email cprentice@hollyhillfarm.verizon.net for details and to register.

A Day of Gardening How To

The 44th annual Gardeners’ Gathering is being hosted by The Trustees at Northeastern University on March 23. Free and open to everyone!

For Your Sweet Tooth, the New England Way

Brookwood Farm is holding its annual Maple Sugar Days Festival on March 23 & 24, from 10 – 4.

A Different Boston Gardening Scene

This year’s Boston Flower and Garden show runs from March 13 – 17.

Local Stars

Ugh, have you seen that report on declining insect populations worldwide? Planting native species can help attract and sustain beneficial insects. Author Russ Cohen presents Nibbling on Natives in Your Back Yard and Beyond. Free and open to everyone at Hingham Public Library on April 7 from 2 – 4.DSC_0345

Library Harvest

Have you used Hoopla, a free source of electronic media that’s available at our public library? Hoopla currently has a surprising number of gardening books, such as Countertop Gardens, Indoor Kitchen Gardening, High Yield Vegetable Gardening, and Thrifty Gardening. Or how about Dogscaping, How Carrots Won the Trojan War, or A Woman’s Guide to Cannabis?

Braintree’s Hidden Garden Source

Go check out all of the living things growing indoors under lights at Gardin, which outgrew its location at New England Wildlife Center and moved to its current warehouse space at 137 Bay State Drive, near the Braintree high school.  This place makes you want to turn your whole house into a terrarium. They have a huge array of indoor and outdoor growing supplies, some of which are hard to find elsewhere in our area, plus friendly, informed service. Matt helped me pick out a grow light for starting some microgreens and herbs on my countertop.

Plus, they have a turtle. This guy has the best turtle home ever.

Hang in there, everyone.