Each month Redawna Kalynchuk draws on her extensive gardening experience to help you Grow Your Own Food in Canada. Today we're showing you how to start seedlings indoors.
Editor's Note: This article contains affiliate links — full disclosure is at the end of the article. This article was updated on Feb 19, 2020.
You’ve decided this is the year you'd like to try growing some of your own food. That's great! Maybe you've seen or heard other people talking about getting a head start on the gardening season by planting seeds indoors and you've wondered if that's something you should be doing.
Starting your vegetable seeds indoors when it's still too cold outside to grow in the garden is a great practice that’s inexpensive and gives you the opportunity to have a bumper crop - especially in Canada where many parts of the country have a short outdoor growing season.
When Should You Start Planting Vegetable 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 ensures 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.
How To Get Started Planting Seeds Indoors
To get started planting indoors you will need some seedling trays and/or peat pots, and a light source. Peat pots are great for planting in because they're 100% biodegradable and you can plant them directly into the garden when you put your seedlings outdoors - it cuts down on plastic waste.
You'll also need a good starting soil mix which you'll probably want to buy from your local garden nursery. It doesn't need a lot of nutrients at this stage but it does need to be free of weeds and any other pathogens. You do not want to use soil from your existing garden or flower beds at this stage. The soil needs to be damp before planting your seeds.
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.
The packages 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. Keep in mind that a lot of seedlings look the same until they grow their third set of leaves.
It's also a good idea to mark your rows when you’re directly seeding into the garden. You can 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. Keep a map in a notebook that tells you what each row is and when it was planted.
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. They don't get their second set of leaves and stay a very light green. That's because their simply isn't 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.
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- Grow Your Own Food: Choosing Seeds
- Grow Your Own Food: Know Your Canadian Gardening Zone
- Creating Your Own Edible Small Space Garden
- 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.