CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite the unscientific opinion of certain ground-dwelling large rodents, gardeners are definitely itching for spring. When dreamily gazing at garden catalogs just doesn't do it, when you need to get your hands dirty, and when you need to be assured that spring will arrive once more, then it is perhaps time to think about starting some seeds indoors.
It is a popular topic, especially since there is a big interest in growing food plants. But how do you make sure you are successful? How can you make sure that when spring comes calling, you'll be ready with seedlings in hand? All it takes is a little thought, planning and determination to increase your chances of success.
Why start seeds?
Why do you want to go through the hassle of starting seeds, when you can buy perfectly good plants at the garden center? There are a few good reasons, actually. The first in my mind is selection. As even local garden centers rely more and more on seedlings produced by national companies, choice of varieties becomes more limited. Yes, there are some good producers at farmer's markets that start seedlings, but even then they can't start everything that you could possibly want to grow. I know I'm not the only person out there that likes varieties not commonly grown commercially.
The second reason is cost. For a few dollars, you can but a few seedling plants or a packet with dozens or even hundreds of seeds. While there are costs associated with the actual seed starting (starting mix/containers/electricity for lights), you are typically still ahead when you start your own. There are ways to reduce costs, such as blending your own starting mix and using recycled containers.
Seed starting basics
Seed starting is a pretty simple principle but one that can take a little practice to get just right. Mother Nature does it with ease, but she isn't really concerned with starting a small number of the exact seeds you want started. To start, you need to make sure you are satisfying all of the seeds needs to get it germinated and keep it alive. Those basic needs are: a place to grow, water and heat. After they get started, you'll also need light and some type of fertility.
One common mistake people make is starting seeds in potting soil or any nonsterile soil. You need a nice, light medium with little to no fertility in it (the seed has enough energy to get it to its first set of leaves). Some people have told me (and some seed starting mix recipes say) to add compost to the mix. There are a few reasons why this isn't recommended.
First, compost tends to be too heavy, which can cause waterlogging and seed rotting. Second, while compost contains a great number of good bacteria and fungi, it can also contain some bad guys that will kill your seedling or adult plants. Unless you are a great composter with 100 percent perfect compost (or you sterilize it), there's always a risk of causing more harm than good. A seed starting mix recipe can be as simple as equal parts peat moss (or coconut coir) and vermiculite.