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Hard to believe when you look out the window that it’s less than 60 days from spring. That can only mean one thing for a veggie gardener: time to crank up your seed starting machine. Get organized to start those seeds that need a head start before the ground warms. The same prep goes for seeds that you can sow directly as soon as you can work the ground. Time to fish or cut bait for all those catalogs you have been examining since Christmas. If you don’t place your orders soon, what you want might not be in stock.

Can You Use Seeds From Prior Years?

Yes, if the seeds are still viable. You can check by moistening a small group of seeds, wrapping them in a damp paper towel and sealing them in a zip-lock bag. Place the bag in a warm spot like the top of the refrigerator. In about 7-10 days if you see growth it’s a sure sign the seeds in the packet are good to go. One less expense!

Seed Starting Materials

Seed starting mix is a critical success factor. Spend your money here.

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This short video will give you some insight into this special blend. What is not negotiable is the cleanliness of your materials: properly cleaned tools, containers for the seedlings, etc. You can use plastic yogurt containers, pudding cups, and the lower 3-4 inches of milk cartons. Make sure you punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Peat pots work well since you don’t have to remove the plant and disturb the roots when planting in the ground. Cow Pots are even better than peat pots since they totally disintegrate by the end of the season while feeding the soil and plant at the same time.

What About the Water?

Seedlings need an even supply of water and you must never let them dry out. Capillary mats are a great invention which solves that problem. But you can avoid that cost by setting your planting containers in another tray which you can then fill with tepid water for the plants to take up. If you choose that route, remember to remove the water-filled tray once the plants have absorbed the moisture (check the top of the medium to be sure it’s wet). Too much water is as bad as too little.

Keeping Your Babies Warm

Ideal temperature for successful seed starting is 70 to 75 degrees. Electric mats do this job really well (think warm feet!). Alternatively, I have used the top of the refrigerator. Some gardeners use the top of a furnace. You can also create a mini-greenhouse by covering the seedlings with clear plastic — like dry cleaner bags or inverted beverage bottles  to capture warmth and moisture. With the plastic, you can use skewers or bamboo stakes at the ends as poles over which to drape the plastic to prevent the plastic from touching the planting medium.


Seedlings rarely need light to emerge. Once they’re up, they will need about 12-14 hours a day. South-facing windows work well, ensuring things don’t get too hot there. You might have to supplement with grow lights on short daylight days. The lights need to stay 2-3 inches from the plants. Remember to move them up as the plants grow and to rotate the tray when you see the seedlings lean toward the light. Lights that you can adjust and timers work well.

Plant Tags

All seedlings look alike so plant tags (use popsicle sticks from the craft store) are de rigueur.

When Will I See Seedlings?

You need to be patient with most seedlings. Make it a daily habit to check your babies and inspect for any changes and signs of success. Moisture level and temperature are especially important. Take notes of what you did, the dates you did it, and the results. The seed packet is a treasure trove of information. It will tell you days to germinate, the plant’s expected size, how much sun or shade this veggie likes, maybe even recipes. Compare your results to the information on the packet so that next year you will be that much smarter about your seed starting.

I’ve been doing this for a very long time and each year, it continually amazes me. I marvel at seeing little green things push up from a soil-less medium. But even mare remarkable is what happens when that tiny seed becomes a food producing machine in my garden. In the words of my British friends, I am always gob smacked. You will be too!

Written by Lorraine Ballato, Author of Success with Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide

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