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Jump-start Your Seeds Indoors | Spring 2005 Out Here Magazine

Bathe your seedlings in plenty of light by suspending a simple two-bulb shop light fitted with full-spectrum "grow-light" bulbs about 2-3 inches above the tiny plants.

By Peter V. Fossel

Photography by Donnie Beauchamp

I take a dim view of March. It reminds me of the wet socks that used to bunch up in my toes as a kid. However, the seed packets tell me to "plant outdoors as early as the soil can be worked." So I investigate the matter and determine the soil can be worked right now, today. It's ready. The seeds are ready. The tools are ready. What's not ready is me.

It's raw and miserable outside this time of year where we live, so we're going to plant seeds indoors instead. Even if you live in a more moderate climate, starting seeds inside is not only economical, it's fun. All you need are seeds, potting soil, containers with drain holes, a waterproof tray, and labels. We use the 48-cell flats.

Just about any seeds can be started indoors. The best candidates are annual or perennial flowers, herbs, and long-season vegetables that transplant well, including tomatoes, peppers, squash, and members of the brassica family, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, mustard, turnips, and kale.

Fill the pots or cells most of the way with potting soil, put two or three seeds on top, and jiggle the tray from side to side to work them in. Set the flat in the waterproof tray and add warm water (it soaks in faster) until the potting soil is damp to its surface. Our potting soil needs about a half-gallon per flat.

If the flat came with a clear plastic lid, put that in place and tape one end. Or use plastic wrap. The idea is to keep the soil evenly moist until the seeds germinate. Apply self-adhesive labels to mark what seeds you planted. And save the seed packets for any growing advice you'll need later.

Once the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic and provide a good light source. We suspend fluorescent fixtures from the ceiling. We buy simple two-bulb shop lights for about $10 each, fitted with full-spectrum "grow-light" bulbs. Suspend these about 2-3 inches above the seedlings as they grow.

The fixture should completely cover the flat, which means two fixtures for a typical 10-by-20-inch flat. We leave the lights on for 12 hours a day, with a timer.

Tomatoes are among the best candidates for indoor seed-starting, which not only is economical, it's fun, too.

After germination, keep the soil lightly damp through bottom watering (add water to the bottom tray, not each cell). This helps prevent damping-off disease, which is caused in part by a saturated soil surface. But also avoid stressing and stunting your seedlings by forgetting to check their water every day.

Fertilizer shouldn't be required unless your plants will be growing indoors for more than a few weeks after their seedling stage (when their first true leaves emerge). In this case, use any good, balanced fertilizer, and avoid the temptation to apply too much. We prefer organic blends for their ability to produce stronger, healthier, and more disease-resistant plants.

Which you'll be transplanting into the April garden.

Peter Fossel is gardens manager at The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tenn.