The first thing to consider when starting your own seedlings (which usually take around six weeks to be ready for planting in the garden) is light. To sprout and flourish, seedlings need lots of sunlight, such as that found in a bright Southern exposure window, or steady constant light provided by fluorescent lamps.
If you are lucky enough to have a warm sunny window with a wide enough shelf for seedling trays, your seedlings will need every ounce of sunshine—preferably eight or nine hours, which can be tough during a Cape Cod or Islands winter. Under fluorescent lights, eight hours of exposure will help things sprout nicely, especially if you use a heat mat like the one shown in the photo to the left.
You do not need fancy grow lights to get your seedlings going—ordinary fluorescent tubes are fine. It helps if your growing area is in a warm basement corner, or tucked away on a kitchen shelf somewhere.
Watering seedlings is a delicate business—too much water and the little seedlings will rot in their soil pots—too little and they will be weak and spindly. A good purchase to make is a spray mister bottle. From start to finish, spray misting will provide the right amount of moisture for your seedlings.
All gardeners have their favorite seed companies. Most local garden centers have good arrays of choices, including some heirloom varieties as well as time-tested seed choices from well-established companies.
It is important to buy sterilized potting soil from a local garden center like Country Garden in Hyannis to start your seedlings off right—regular garden soil can be too heavy, wet, or harbor diseases. We like to use organic soil whenever possible, but mostly it’s important to use sterilized soil of any kind.
There are lots of choices for pots or trays to plant your seeds in. You can recycle and use old egg cartons, milk cartons, etc., filled with your sterilized potting soil, or you can purchase seed starting kits, which often have the trays and little peat pods that are great for getting seeds started off right. The peat pod coverings can be left on the seedling once it has sprouted—all you need to do is make delicate cuts or tears in the side of the pod fabric once the plant has sprouted to allow for root expansion.
How to get started
Certain kinds of vegetables don’t do well with transplanting outside once it has warmed up and the seedlings are sturdy enough to put in the ground. This varies considerably from vegetable to vegetable. The Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Service has an excellent list of planting guidelines.
Vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, peppers, broccoli, kale, cabbage, and more do very well after started indoor as seedlings and then transplanted outside. Root vegetables like carrots and beets are better started as seeds right in the ground.
To plant your seeds, fill a plastic bag with potting soil. Spray it well with your mister bottle and squeeze it to try and moisten all the soil.
Fill the pots with soil, then gently press your seeds in the pots. If you are using a seed starter kit, water the pods well until they expand, then cover all seeds with a thin covering of fine soil. Mist everything well, then cover with a layer of Saran wrap or the plastic cover provided with the kit. If you are using a heat mat, I suggest giving the plants a break after the seeds sprout. I unplug the mat at night and also uncover the seeds a bit in the morning because condensation really builds up under the plastic.
Place the trays and the heat mat under the grow lights (three inches above the pots) or in your sunny window, mist the soil when it feels dry to touch, and let Mother Nature take over. With the heat mats, I’ve had seeds sprout in a few days. Most seedlings should be ready to plant outside in a month or so. Tomatoes and peppers, which cannot be planted outside until after Memorial Day, can be started inside in mid to late April or early May. Other hardier plants, like lettuce and peas, can be started in early February and planted outside on Cape Cod after Patriots Day. – S.D.