Nancy Brachey

Get a head start on spring by sowing seeds indoors

You can purchase a seed tray or use a clean egg carton as a seed tray to start plants indoors.
You can purchase a seed tray or use a clean egg carton as a seed tray to start plants indoors. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Cold weather has many of us yearning for spring. The air and ground remain cold while we long to plant something.

Sowing seeds indoors is a way to fulfill this longing and get ahead as winter begins its retreat and spring advances, both to our delight.

This is a task that many gardeners contemplate, but many wait too late to sow seeds or make fatal errors, especially with the watering can. The process is not foolproof but can be a lot of fun.

As much as we might like to think it so, a house isn’t a garden. Light and humidity are low, the temperature often too warm with the furnace running or too cool when doors open and a blast of cold air blows indoors.

But it is worth the fuss, especially as the young plants develop and give off a real spring vibe that raises everyone’s spirits.

You don’t need much in the way of equipment to do this. Go easy at first until you get the hang of it and establish this as something you really enjoy. For example, a single tray of seedling tomato plants should provide more than enough to supply your garden and your friends’ and neighbors.’

One value of sowing seeds at home is that you can select the varieties you want to grow. Hundreds of varieties of tomatoes exist, but relatively few are in the marketplace as young plants ready to set out in late April. It’s the same with many popular crops, such as peppers, squashes and melons.

Racks in garden centers hold seeds of many kinds of flowers and vegetables. Seed catalogs have many more. Making these choices is lots of fun. You may find it hard to get away from the seed racks or put down the catalogs.

Assemble your equipment. The basic things you need are a sterile packaged growing mixture and a clean container such as a shallow clay pot or seed tray. Some seed trays come equipped with clear plastic tops that let in light but hold the humidity that keeps young seedlings from drying out. You will also need some small peat or plastic pots to transplant seedlings into once the stems get a few inches tall and develop leaves.

Good light and gentle warmth are essential. People who get invested in this type of gardening may buy fluorescent lights and an electric heating pad to put under the seed tray for even, gentle warmth. Before the arrival of flat-screen TVs, the top of a television set was often seen as a warm spot for a seed tray.

Moisten the planting mixture before you sow seeds and give it time to allow excess to drain away. Soggy soil will encourage rot, and that can ruin seeds and seedlings quickly.

Sow the seeds sparingly; overcrowded seedlings are thin and weak. Never sow an entire package all at once or in the same container.

Some seeds require light to germinate. The package will tell you whether to sow them on top of the soil mix or to cover them with it. Make a label with the name on it. It is easy to mix things up.

Pay careful attention to watering seeds during germination. If the soil dries out, the seeds will also dry out, which can be fatal. Evenly moist is your goal, neither too wet nor too dry. When water is needed, use a mist sprayer to avoid dislodging seeds and seedlings. Until seeds sprout, clear plastic wrap will create a greenhouse effect. Check daily to make sure excess moisture is not building up. You are making a greenhouse, not a rain forest.

The amount of time to germination varies, and the package may give you guidance, such as seven to 10 days. After the seeds sprout, they will require light at the window or under fluorescent lights to keep them growing.

This is when the watching gets fun and brings much excitement to a home. Once the seedlings have two pairs of true leaves, transplant each seedling to an individual peat or plastic pot.

Give the plants the sunniest spot in your house and fertilize them lightly until it is time to plant outdoors. For summer vegetables and flowers, that usually means after mid-April, when the soil and air have warmed and it truly feels like spring.

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. I am looking ahead to many projects this spring and want to get ahead where I can. Is it too early to set out some ground-cover plants where I want a substitute for grass?

A. It is not too early to set out hardy plants as long as you can work the ground with a shovel or trowel, which is most of the time in this area. We should have some pleasant days ahead that you can seize upon to begin your spring work as winter approaches its end.

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