Starting seeds indoors for the garden

Thank you, big, fat snowflakes falling on March 13, for reminding me that winter is never leaving. You were pretty in December, and now you are hideous. Meanwhile, I am trying to force spring by starting seeds — indoors — for my garden. On the aforementioned snowy March 13, I planted seeds for arugula, kale and blushed butter oak lettuce. Two days later, I had this!

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Just kidding. But I do have this!

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I decided to start my garden indoors this year for the first time because I’ve been taking a master gardening class and this seems like something a master gardener is supposed to do. Here’s the thing, though: In class, we’ve learned about pests and plant diseases and all that, but we’ve skipped over some really practical information, like how to start seeds indoors.

I’m going to show you what I did so that you can correct me where I’m wrong.

I’ve been consulting two helpful books:  Gardening Wisdom and Know-How for general seed-starting instructions and Guide to Indiana Vegetable Gardening for planting info on individual vegetables. I made a chart of the things I want to grow, and dates for when each vegetable can be started indoors and then transplanted to the garden.

Essentially, you work backwards from one important date: Average last frost date, the date when the threat of frost has passed. That date varies by region — I live in southern Indiana and decided to use April 20, which is probably a bit conservative. I’m not a particularly risky gardener yet.

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Some vegetables do well in cool temps, and those are the ones you start indoors first, and transplant into the garden first. I decided to start with arugula, lettuce and kale.

Here’s how it went.
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Prepare your mise en place. It’s just like cooking. Think through the process and set out everything you’re going to need. Your hands will get dirty and it’ll be annoying if you have to stop to wash them in order to collect more materials.

Clockwise, from top left:

Potting soil: In Gardening Wisdom and Know-How, I read about mixing your own soil for starting seeds. I ended up buying a pre-mixed variety that had all of the components I read about. I wanted to try concocting my own, but this was just easier.

Plastic trays: These do not have drainage holes, which is what I wanted for this stage. When the seedlings are big enough and have roots, I think I’ll need to transfer them to their own little containers that have drainage holes at the bottom.

Ruler: To make rows for the seeds and to make sure you’re dropping seeds every half-inch, or inch, or whatever the seed packet says about spacing.

Seeds: Read the instructions on the packets before you get started.

Garden trowel: For mixing soil and water together in the bucket.

A big bucket: For mixing soil and water together.

Hot water: (Not pictured) For dampening the soil.

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Prepare the soil. Scoop the potting soil into a large bucket and pour in hot water. Give it a good mix, and add more water as needed until the soil is wet but not waterlogged. When I squeezed a handful of soil, no water dripped out.  The guy who was helping us at the garden center said using hot water is key.

Here’s a fun fact: You know those little white balls in potting soil that look like bits of Styrofoam? They’re actually “popped” volcanic ash, a natural substance, according to Gardening Wisdom and Know-How.

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Fill the trays with soil, packing it in evenly with your hands. The soil should come up nearly to the lip of the trays.

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Using a ruler, make a long well in the soil for a row of seeds. The seed packet will tell you how deep the well should be. I’ll be honest, I didn’t measure. I bet all of mine were about 1/4-inch deep.

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Tap the seeds into one hand and sprinkle them into the well with your other hand. If, like me, you’re nervous about your ability to space the seeds evenly according to the directions on the seed packet, lay the ruler next to the well for guidance.

Cover the seeds by gently pushing the misplaced dirt back into the well and giving it a good pat down.

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Cover the trays in plastic wrap. You’re basically creating a mini-greenhouse, and it’ll help keep moisture in. You want to keep watering to a minimum early on, because you risk washing out the seeds. Planting in wet soil and covering the trays in plastic wrap means you shouldn’t have to water until the shoots are up. At that point, remove the plastic wrap.

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Make sure the trays are getting 16-18 hours of light every day. Jeff rigged a simple light setup in the basement by suspending a lamp from the ceiling. He screwed metal hooks into wooden beams in the ceiling, and bought extra chain so that the light could hover right over the plants. I can adjust the length of the chain to accomodate the plants as they grow. The lamp will come with a short length of chain, but you’ll need to buy extra since you’ll want the lamp to hang right over the plants instead of near the ceiling. Use 30- or 40-watt bulbs in the lamp.

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And two days later, this is what I got! I think this — the sprouts stage — is the easy part. Soon, they’ll grow into true plants, and I’ll need to keep those alive in my basement for a few more weeks. Then, I’ll have to acclimate them to the outdoors by setting them outside for a while each day — this is called “hardening off” — before transplanting them to the garden.

Best of luck to my little sprouts!

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