Starting seeds indoors this time of year provides many of the same pleasures that outdoor planting will provide in another month or so, the feel and smell of damp soil, the size and shape of seeds, the act of pressing a seed into soil, lightly covering it and pressing again, and then the daily excitement of checking to see what sprouts are shouldering their way through the soil to the light.
The little room where I start seeds is the perfect place to go when the desire to experience these pleasures is strong but it’s still cold and blustery outside. The light-filled space warms quickly on sunny days, creating the illusion of springtime. The windows that form the south wall of this room enclose a nine-by-three foot low shelf and a slightly narrower upper shelf, both perfect for flats of growing plants.
Though the windows let in a lot of light, I’ve found that I still need to supplement the light this time of year to keep plants from getting leggy. I’ve hung four-foot shop lights fitted with one cool white and one warm white fluorescent bulb two inches from the growing plants and have a twenty-four hour timer set to keep the lights on for fourteen hours. See Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (6th edition, p. 202-203) for the advice that guided me.
On half of the lower shelf, there is a heating mat for starting seeds. Once plants are up and growing, I move them to other shelves. I also have an oscillating fan on the wall opposite these shelves and keep it on low all the time. The little bit of motion the moving air causes in the growing plants makes them stronger.
In the northeast corner of this room there is a counter where I plant seeds and pot up seedlings. For years, I mixed my own potting soil but several years ago, during an especially busy time, I tried Black Gold organic potting soil. It’s great and I’ve kept using it.
I have a collection of one-inch and two-inch cell packs, four-inch pots and trays that I reuse year after year. Masking tape stuck to packs and pots and labeled with permanent marker pen works well to identify plants. For watering, there’s a coiled hose that stretches out to the length of the counters and makes watering very easy. All these manipulations of light, heat, air, soil and water are benefits of starting seeds inside and more than make up for being inside instead of outside.
The final great pleasure of starting seeds inside is being able to look closely at the germinating and growing plants. Onions are one of my favorites to watch. They emerge from the soil folded, like little green paper clips, before springing open to a single strand.
Peas raise a little bump in the soil before breaking through and growing quickly. The flat I planted on February 29th germinated in five days and was ready to plant in the garden in two weeks. After hardening them of outdoors for several days, I set them out in the garden March 13th.
Each seed has its distinctive pattern of emergence and growth. I’ll watch for more of these patterns when I start planting outside in the garden, but for now I’ll enjoy starting seeds in this warm, sheltered place and wait for spring.