Starting Seeds Indoors

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From one gardener to another, I’m struggling with our unseasonably warm weather! These days of low to mid- 70s are waking up the itch to dig around in the vegetable garden in anticipation of delicious, homegrown produce even though April seems achingly far away. However, these warms days still bring in a spurt of home gardening questions, including those about when and how to start seeds indoors.

Seeds are started indoors to produce a small plant that will be transplanted outdoors. These transplants give you a head start on the season, as they will mature sooner and produce earlier than seeds sown directly in the garden. Some vegetables handle transplanting better than others do. Standard transplants are cucumbers, squash, and the all-time summer favorite — tomatoes. Vegetables that don’t handle transplanting are crops such as carrots, beans, and parsnips. Aim to start your seeds 6-8 weeks before the frost-free date. In this part of the state, we’re looking at April 15 as our last frost, so you would start seeds around February 26.

When planting, consider if you want to sow the seeds into the containers where they will be grown and transplanted from or if you will grow them out in a flat and transplant into a cell pack before planting outdoors.

When starting seeds, use a finely shredded or ground potting media that is clean or has been sanitized to remove any traces of bacteria and fungi. Containers should be sanitized and drain easily. Consider placing them on pebble-lined trays filled with water to maintain high humidity and encourage germination. If you’re looking for easy setup, stores such as Walmart or Lowes sell germination trays that include peat pellets for you to sow your seeds onto and plastic lids that will hold humidity in.

Keep media damp but not overly wet. If the soil remains too wet, you are likely inviting bacterial or fungal infection and you will lose the crop before it even gets a start. If you sow extra seed in case of seedling failure, be prepared to thin them if most of the seeds germinate. While harmless at first, they will compete for water, light, and nutrients. Snip the leaves at the media level or gently remove the seedling.

If you are transplanting into a second container before moving them outdoors, do not move the seedlings until they have their first true leaves. If you are transplanting directly into your garden after the last frost, wait until several leaves have developed and the root system is strong.

Selena McKoy is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Harnett County.