A Winter Seed Starting Guide

Oh, those irresistible seed packets. They fit just right in the palm of your hand with a picture that just sings to you. Who could possibly resist? February is the perfect time to start seeds indoors. Grab a container, put in some dirt, sprinkle the seeds and put it by a window. Hurrah!

Boy, those seeds sure are taking their time to sprout…the initial “hurrah” has worn off, replaced by worry. Did you buy the right seeds? Maybe they hate the dirt!  Perhaps you should water them (again, and again). Before you experience seed sadness, here’s a primer. We hope it helps.

Seeds can be a little fussy. From their point of view, this is where they have to live. They’re going to wait for the perfect moment before springing to life. It’s our job to convince the greatest number of them that this is their moment.

It is helpful to use a seed starter kit, with a heat mat, to begin growing seeds indoors during the winter.

The steps are easy to remember if you consider what things make seeds happy. Soil. Water. Warmth. Light. Get it all together and you’re on your way.

First, when you buy the adorable little packets, also buy good “seed starter mix” soil (dirt is what happens to your house. Soil is what plants grow in). Don’t use garden soil as it’s not sterile, and you may sprout weeds instead of whatever you’ve chosen to grow. Many people like to amend this soil, but your seeds should be alright with a good mix.

If your seeds are for perennial plants, you should stratify them in your freezer/fridge. This is easy; moisten a paper towel (moist, not wet) add a few seeds and place it in the freezer. Wait a day or two, take them out and place in good light, let thaw, make sure the paper is still moist, repeat the process half a dozen times or so. The freezing and thawing will help break open the seed coat, which will allow the little root to emerge.

Now – dampen the soil. Just damp. Not wet. Not dry. Juuuust right.

Place the soil in a container that will drain. Many people like paper cups or even egg cartons with holes in the bottom (corkscrews work great to create the holes). A general rule of thumb is to bury the seed roughly four times as deep as the size of the seed. Fine, clean sand can help with tiny seeds. Mix roughly five times the amount of sand as seeds together, then sprinkle the entire mixture on top of the moist soil. That’s it, you’re done with this step.

Now, with seeds in their moist little homes, sitting on a tray, place plastic wrap or a dome covering (a clear, recycled plastic container works great) over the little guys. This will keep the soil moist until they sprout – you don’t want to water until they sprout, and they won’t sprout if there’s no moisture.

Now put the whole shebang on a seed mat if you have one. Seed mats speed up germination because they keep the soil uniformly warm. That nice warm soil makes seeds happy. They’ll be convinced it’s spring.

Now…place the whole thing, dome to seed mat, in a well-lit room. Soon, you’ll see them sprout.

Once the seeds sprout, remove the dome. It’s best to place the container on a tray with high sides because seedlings should be watered from below. Once the seeds sprout, the seed mat is also no longer needed. Keep that light close to the seedlings, 4 to 6” is about right for 12 hours a day, but not more than 12 hours. Seedlings need to rest, too. They can grow by windows, but they will do much better under a seed light; in a window they can’t get 12 hours of light so will soon be leggy, with weak stems. If possible, keep a fan moving air gently about in the room. This will make their little stems stronger.

If necessary, thin the seedlings after they get their “true” leaves (the first leaves will look a little different from all the rest). Pick the strongest seedlings and cull those snuggled tight up against them. Resist the temptation to save them all; they’re much too small to compete with each other and you may lose all of them by trying to save all of them. Tragic! So be bold and brave and thin them out. Special scissors for infant nails are great for this. Gently pull the seedling apart from its siblings and snip near the bottom, then remove the cut part.

If moving the seedlings into a larger pot, remember to lift them out from the roots and, if necessary, stabilize them by holding a leaf. A seedling can grow another leaf or another root, but it can’t grow another stem.

Remember to water seedlings only from the bottom. Pour water in the tray and allow the soil to absorb it. If they’ve gotten too dry all of a sudden, water the tray and gently mist the seedlings and soil. That will give them immediate relief and won’t smash them with huge droplets of water.

Happy growing!

Written by Maureen “Reenie” Rice, a Master Gardener in Talbot County. A lifelong naturalist, Ms. Rice enjoys writing and research when she’s not playing in the dirt.

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