Our Minnesota winters can certainly drag on, especially when it starts as soon as October and overstays its welcome by a month... or two. For those of us who love getting our hands in the dirt, the wait can seem especially unbearable. I don't know about you, but I crave the feeling of soil packed underneath my fingernails.
The good news is we don't have to wait for it either - even though the garden is buried under snow. Seed starting is the perfect way to get back into the gardening groove, and get us set up for a great growing season ahead.
What To Do: Prepare your soilless mix by combining it with warm water until damp, not wet. The reason behind using this type of planting medium is that it is not only sterile, but also lightweight and porous, providing the optimal environment for a germinating seed.
Fill your planting containers with your soilless mix, scraping and leveling off the tops with a knife or other flat tool. Using a toothpick, poke a hole into the soil to the appropriate depth as listed on your seed packet. Drop the seed into the hole and sprinkle with a fine layer of vermiculite which is lightweight and works great for retaining moisture. Additionally, it allows for some light penetration for those seeds that need it for germination.
Because you are using a pre-moistened planting medium, there is no need to water right now. Simply cover (either with plastic wrap or a plastic dome lid that fits your tray appropriately), and place on a heat mat (optional, but does encourage faster germination, especially for heat lovers like peppers). At this point, there is no need for direct lighting from grow lights. In fact, try to keep your seeds away from direct sunlight or other light sources until they have germinated.
A couple times a day, be sure to remove the accumulated moisture from the plastic coverings to prevent damping off, the dreaded soil-borne fungal disease that will kill your seedlings. You can also combat this disease by sprinkling the top of your growing surface with cinnamon, which boasts natural anti-fungal properties.
Monitor watering closely; don't be tempted to over-water. Wait until the soil is dry (not hard) before watering, and water your plants from the bottom rather than the top. This can be done by placing your planting receptacles onto a large tray with a lip (cookie sheet, lid from a rubber tote, etc.), and pour the water onto the tray. The water will then get drawn up by your containers. If you absolutely must water from above, use the mist setting on a spray bottle.
As soon as your seeds germinate, remove the plastic covering and put under lights. Keep your grow lights to within a couple inches of your seedlings, to prevent leggy plants. This is also why artificial lighting is preferred over sunlight; if the light is not within close range of your seedlings, they will reach toward where it is available. By concentrating the light directly over the tops of your plants, they will grow straight and strong. Also, be sure to mimic natural light by shutting off your grow lights at night to prevent stunted growth, burned and wilted plants, or worse.
Well, are you ready to get your hands dirty with me now? I figure, if spring doesn't want to come on its own, then I can make it happen right inside my own home. I hope you decide to join me.