Unless you are starting a small number of seeds, I would recommend starting them in one large container that will fit them all and then transplanting them to a larger container; you will need to transplant them out of the starting mix and into a more hearty potting soil to give them some nutrition anyway. You can use trays or pots specifically designed for the job, or you can recycle things like aluminum pans or even plastic Chinese takeout containers. Just remember to give them drainage. Those peat pellets and pots are handy, but, boy, are they expensive.
Speaking of watering, you'll want to make sure that you keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. This can be a difficult dance to pull off, so there is some skill needed here. The trick is to let the top of the soil dry slightly before you water, but remember that the smaller the container, the faster it dries out. Using a dome cover can greatly increase your success at starting seeds.
Warmth is also a requirement to start seeds. There's a temperature sweet spot that gets things growing their best. For most plants, it is around 75 degrees to get thing started and then moving them to somewhere around 65 to keep them evenly growing. You want to get them past the germination phase quickly to increase success, but temperatures that are too high can also delay germination and can lead to leggy growth. Since most seeds don't need light to germinate, a good, warm place to start them is -- wait for it -- on top of the refrigerator. It's high up, and heat rises, plus the fridge generates some of its own heat.
After they germinate, you'll want to move your little ones into the light. Ideally, you want to provide bright, overhead light using a plant light. Using a warm fluorescent and cool fluorescent bulb in a shop light ballast will also do the trick. A bright window will work, but you'll have to remember to turn your plants often to keep them from leaning too much.
Once you get your seedlings big enough to grow their first set of real leaves, it will be time for them to leave the comfort of the starting mix and head out into the real world and find their own spot. I would suggest giving the seedling its own container with enough space to get it to planting size. You can use the cell pack like you get at the garden center, either buying them or recycling them after you sanitize them by soaking in 10 percent bleach water. Or you can recycle containers like yogurt cups or make your own out of newspaper.
When do you start seeds?
Another thing to consider is timing -- too late and you don't have a good-sized plant to transplant, too early and your plant grows weak and spindly waiting for its time in the sun. The back of the seed packet can provide you with a ballpark figure. A seed packet will tell you to start seeds a certain number of weeks before the last frost date. All you have to do is count backward from our expected last frost date and that is the earliest you should start them.
When is our last frost date? Technically for Southern West Virginia, it is April 20, but many people still like to use the standard of Mother's Day. In the vegetable world, the earliest things you start are the cole crops like broccoli and cabbage, which can be started right about now. Tomatoes and peppers come along in late February and early March.
But this date doesn't mean that it is the only time you can start seeds. You can start seeds for several weeks, and I would suggest not starting everything at once. By spacing out seed starting, you can do succession planting to reduce the amount of work you do at one time and space out harvests over a longer period of time.
John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.por...@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.