Even though there's still a nip in the air and freezing nights are still keeping many a gardener from getting their hands dirty, now is the time to start planning your summer garden—a pot or two of herbs, a few vegetables in planters on your deck, or even a full-fledged garden.
Growing your own edibles from seed is a great way to save some money at the grocery store, and if you take the time to start your own seedlings, versus buying already started plants from a local nursery, you'll get a wider range of choices and you can grow your veggies organically from the start.
Starting your garden is easy once you get the hang of it.
1: Time your planting. Seedlings take from one week to two months to get to the point when you can transplant them outside, so do a few simple calculations to determine which crops you can plant during the best growing seasons. Use the information on the seed packets or this handy timing chart for veggies to decide which seeds you have time to start.
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2: Buy some seeds. A garden center may offer a wide selection, but for the very best selection, try shopping online. My favorite source, as they have small packets at very reasonable prices and a wide selection of heirloom and modern varieties, is Pinetree Garden Seeds. While you're shopping, pick up some seed-starting mix, a blend of ingredients that help keep your seeds moist yet well drained. An organic mix will be free of synthetic fertilizers and other unsavory things like "biosolids" (recycled human waste). An organic potting soil will do if you can’t find seed-starting mix.
3: Find a container. Don't get sucked into buying fancy seed-starting containers and flats. Food containers you already have work just as well. Anything about 2 to 3 inches deep will do, as long as you can punch holes in the bottom for drainage. Possibilities include egg cartons, single-serve yogurt containers, and milk or beverage cartons.
You can even make really good seedling pots out of newspaper, which are easy on you and your baby plant’s delicate roots because you'll plant the paper along with the plant. Get a juice glass or small jar that's about three inches across and four inches tall. Tear six long strips of newspaper about six inches wide. One at a time, wrap each strip around the glass, letting an extra two inches of newspaper stick out beyond the bottom of the glass. Flatten the extra paper against the bottom of your glass, slip the paper pot off the glass, and to help it hold its shape, fill it nearly to the top with seed-starting medium.
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4: Start your seeds! Whichever container you choose, when it's time to start your seeds, fill each one with seed-starting mix, moisten it with a little water, and drop the seeds on top. Cover with more mix according to the depth recommended on the seed packet. Then place them in a clear plastic clamshell (the kind that salad greens come packaged in) and snap the lid shut. Those make super mini-greenhouses that speed germination and protect tender new shoots from dry air. When the seedlings have a few leaves, let them grow with the lid open.
5: Pick a spot for your seedlings. Seeds need light and warmth to sprout. If you have a windowsill that’s sunny for most of the day, use it. If not, an inexpensive fluorescent tube fixture mounted on an adjustable-height stand works well. A room that stays above 60 degrees will do for growing seedlings, but for best results, put your planted containers on top of a heating pad.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every week on Rodale News.