Welcome to Grow Your Own Food, an informative series on gardening and growing your own food in Canada. Each month Redawna Kalynchuk draws on her extensive gardening experience to guide you through a year of growing your own food – planning, planting, maintaining, harvesting and putting your garden to bed for winter. Now that you've decided what to grow and have purchased the seeds, Redawna guides you through the process of starting seeds indoors so you have strong and healthy seedlings to get a head start on the season!
You’ve decided that this year you’ll grow your own food and you’re considering starting some of those seeds indoors to get a bit of a head start on the season. It’s a great practice that’s inexpensive and gives you the opportunity to have a bumper crop!
When and How to Plant Seeds Indoors
Looking to the seeds you want to start early, you need a bit of information from the seed package to pick a planting date. The first thing to look for is how many weeks BEFORE your last frost the seeds should be started. That assures your plants will be old and strong enough to handle the move outdoors. It also gives you a good idea if the crop will be finished before your first frost in the fall. As mentioned before, be sure to buy seeds that will grow and be harvestable in your area’s growing season.
The second bit of information you’re looking for on the package is how to plant. Each seed has different needs as to depth and spacing. It will also tell you how long it takes for the seeds to germinate. Be aware of these numbers and mark your trays so you know what each contains. Many seedlings look the same until they grow their third set of leaves.
This is also something to keep in mind if you’re directly seeding into the garden. In the garden be sure to use wood pegs and strings to mark your rows. Not only will you have nice straight lines, but it’s also a guide to help you differentiate vegetable seedlings from weed seedlings. And as the garden grows, resist the urge to pull the string markers out until you can tell vegetables from weeds. A good rule of thumb is to wait until they have a good three inches of growth.
Light, Water, Warmth and Wind
If you’ve ever started seeds indoors, you may have noticed they sprout and start off really nice. Then they start to stretch out and become spindly, and don’t do much more than that. Rarely will they get their second set of leaves and are a very light green. There’s simply not enough light. The idea of growing plants on the window sill is lovely but unrealistic. Even the tiniest of seedlings need light — lots of light. Much more than what comes through the windows.
Fluorescent lights and fixtures are inexpensive and easy to set up and operate. And you’re saving a ton of money. For just a portion of what you would spend at the greenhouse on plants, you could get all you need to start and grow your entire garden. I started out with a few four-foot fixtures on overturned milk crates. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.
If you’re not in a position to buy any type of lights, I still encourage you to start at least some flower seeds indoors. Petunias and lobelia are great options as they’re slower growers. For a head start on peppers and tomatoes I do suggest you buy those plants from a greenhouse or garden centre. They require stronger light as they grow much faster and will become leggy if they’re not under lights.
When I’m germinating seeds I use a cover on the tray to raise the humidity and to contain heat. Seeds need moisture and warmth to germinate. Once a tray is planted I place it on an electric heating pad under the lights. This can at times speed up the germination process by quite a few days. If you don’t have a heating pad find a really nice warm area of your home. Be sure to wipe down the inside of the cover using a clean towel at least once a day. This airs out the tray and also helps prevent too much moisture building up. Once the seedlings sprout remove the lid completely.
Lower the lights as close as you can get them to the plants without touching them. The great thing about using fluorescent lights is they stay nice and cool. So even if a seedling does touch a bulb, it will be fine; they don’t generate enough heat to burn the leaves.
If you’re using a light, turn it on in the morning and off when you go to bed at night. Just as the day are getting longer as we approach spring, you can run the lights with those hours. If you’re growing with natural light, place the seedlings in the sunniest spot available; a south facing window is best.
When they’re this young I don’t fertilize them at all. Make sure the soil is wet, but not too wet — you don’t want the seedlings to drown. To water them, I suggest filling the tray with water so the soil can soak it up from the bottom. It doesn’t disturb the tender seedlings and keeps the soil in place.
I fill my tray with water and allow it to soak for about 20 minutes, then I carefully drain the rest of the remaining water out. All you do now is check on them daily for moisture and let them grow.
Your goal when growing indoors is to duplicate Mother Nature as best you can. So along with with lights and water you also need to think about wind. In nature wind makes plants stronger, as does it indoors. You want to be sure your plants are strong and healthy so they can handle the transition when they’re moved to the outdoors.
As soon as my seedlings have their first set of leaves I turn a fan on for a minimum of 30 minutes a day. This assures they’ll have nice strong stems long before they ever feel real wind. I spray all my seedlings with water before I turn the fan on to be sure I don’t dry them out.
- Grow Your Own Food: Choosing Seeds
- Grow Your Own Food: Know Your Canadian Gardening Zone
- Creating Your Own Edible Small Space Garden
- Gardening for Food Bloggers
- Our Top Five Herbs to Grow Indoors This Winter
Grow Your Own Food is written by Redawna Kalynchuk. Redawna is the writer, photographer and content creator at Nutmeg Disrupted. She has over 20 years of gardening experience and has gardened from indoors under high-powered lights to frosty zone 2b gardens in northern Alberta. She enjoys pushing the boundaries of traditional gardening and loves empowering others to grow their own food. You can follow her at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.