If this week's mild weather has you itching for spring, you are not alone. Even though the temperature has dropped again, I've decided winter is officially over and I can't wait to get out in the garden and start working.
Unfortunately Mother Nature has other designs, and it's still too cold and damp to actually start working the soil. However, it's the perfect time to start certain seeds indoors and get a head start on the growing season.
If you're growing veggies, seeds that can be started now include broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. In mid-month you can start your tomatoes, peppers, and even some lettuces to get a jump start on your lettuce crop. Spinach can be direct seeded in the garden a little later in the month. Onions and leeks should have been started in February, but you can still get them going early in the month and plant them outdoors in several weeks. Peas are traditionally planted in the garden on St. Patrick's Day and ready for harvest in May.
Perennial seeds that can be started this month include Bergenia, perennial bachelor's button, Clematis, Penstemon, black-eyed Susan, Helianthus, hardy sweet pea, primrose, spiderwort and violets, among others. Annual flowers can also be started indoors this month, with the exact timing based on the individual germination time of a particular species.
If you've never started your own seeds before, keep in mind that it is a learning process and you might not have success with every seed you try. Through trial and error you'll figure out what works best with the growing conditions in your home and what plants you are better off buying as seedlings.
The ideal conditions for starting seeds at home are an extremely sunny window, preferably with a southern exposure. You can invest in artificial lighting, although this may not be worth the expense depending on your gardening ambitions. If you have a well-lit space, you can supplement the natural light with a single grow light which might make for perfect conditions. A greenhouse window is another more energy-efficient option, but the upfront cost may be prohibitive.
When starting seeds be sure to read the seed packet carefully. This will tell you when to start the seeds (for example, start tomatoes 6-8 weeks before the last frost), the germination time, planting depth, and growing conditions (light, temperature, moisture, etc.) Some seeds may also require scarification with a nail file or overnight soaking.
A sterile soilless mix should be used in order to avoid disease organisms that can kill your seedlings, such as the fungus that causes damping off. Damping off, which causes seedlings to become dark and soft and eventually decay, can affect your seeds before or after germination. It can be avoided by having proper air circulation, using a soilless mix (I use Pro-Mix) and anti-fungals.
Seeds can be started in just about anything, including egg cartons, muffin packages and salad containers, as well as peat pots, soil blocks or small plastic flats. The containers should be at least 2 inches deep and have holes for drainage, and the container you use should be determined by how the individual species responds to transplanting. For instance, peas should be started in peat pots or soil blocks that can be directly planted in the ground to avoid disturbance to the roots (or just direct-sow into the garden.) Tomatoes and peppers, however, can be started in plastic pots and take well to being transplanted. After you plant your seeds, be sure to label them carefully. I find a permanent marker on a popsicle stick lasts through many waterings.
When caring for your seedlings make sure the planting mix does not dry out while being careful not to overwater. Damp conditions are a breeding ground for fungus and disease, and can end up drowning delicate roots. A good way to avoid this is to pour water into the trays underneath and allow the seedlings to absorb the water from the bottom up.
Once your seedlings develop their second set of leaves (called "true leaves") it is time to transplant them into larger containers to allow their roots to grow big and strong. Again, the containers that you use will depend on how the plants take to transplanting. Peat pots can be set directly into the soil to avoid a lot of root disturbance. Plastic cell packs can also be used as well as larger flats with the seedlings spaced a few inches apart.
With proper care, your seedlings will be ready to go out in the garden in several weeks, or a bit longer depending on the plant. Before planting, water the seedlings thoroughly. If the plants are in peat pots, cut off the bottom and the top lip, leaving just enough of the pot to keep the soil around the roots. Gardening guru Barbara Damrosch suggests making a hole for each seedling, filling it with water and letting the water sink in. Set the plant in the hole a little deeper than it was in the pot and firm the soil around it. Depending on the plant, you might need to stake it, put up a a support such as a trellis, and/or mulch around it.
With spring just around the corner, we can finally say goodbye to one of the worst winters in recent memory. Having a tray of seeds pushing up tender green growth in a sunny window sill will sustain me through this last unpredictable month, while the emerging crocuses and daylilies outside give us confirmation that spring is most certainly on its way.