There is something which happens to us mid-January. Almost a form of insanity which creeps into our lives, specifically mine. The moment the first Seeds of Change catalog comes in the mail. The Winter ritual of perusing seed catalogs and planning of the beds begins. Dreaming of the perfect garden. Exotic vegetables, fruit, and berries filling our backyard, balcony, or rooftop. Visions of overabundant goodness bursting forth from our beds. (Get your mind out of the gutter – we’re talking gardening here!)
I peruse all the options, looking at the viable and nonviable for our short growing season, wanting the coolest, weirdest stuff imaginable. And then I start drawing up maps of the beds, comparing them with last years, seeing where I can plant everything. Kevin would turn the entire front and back yard into planting beds if I’d let him, and the thought has crossed my mind. Inevitably, our choices are made and seeds are ordered and I wait by the mailbox with anticipation. Yes, I’m really that psychotic.
In the beginning, we’d start our seeds outdoors but eventually found starting as much as we could earlier indoors worked better for us thanks to a short growing season and erratic spring weather. Too many years of hail damage to budding seedlings broke our hearts.
It started with a party/potluck at the house of the awesome and amazing “Jungle” Judy Elliott from Denver Urban Gardens. I was in absolute raptures over her green room, and then she took us into the basement. They’d made endless shelves complete with lighting for starting their seeds. Lots of shelving.
We didn’t have a basement and were pretty limited in our options given the size and lack of insulation in our house. We ended up with a setup we really liked though. We installed 4′ wide shelves similar to these and then hung lights on each shelf containing seedlings (not affiliate links). It’s important to note, we didn’t use all five shelves for seedlings. We actually only used three, which allowed us to space out the shelves and raise the height of the lights as the seedlings grew. As Kevin mentioned in this post, we made sure to use OTTlites in the fixtures and set up timers on the seedlings to make sure they got lots of light. A little oscillating fan set up to simulate wind for the seedlings also helps them to grow nice, strong stalks.
Although we tried a lot of different options, in the end we found placing the seeds directly into plastic trays containing straight peat moss, divided by paint sticks, worked best. It allowed us to pull the little seedlings out of the mix without damaging the roots. We’d tried a variety of the peat coins, etc., but at the end of the season, we’d find the casing still intact, compressing the root ball, or would invariably rip off half the root ball when we tried to remove the casing when planting. We watered by gently pouring water into a corner of the tray. Once a week we supplemented with bone meal dissolved in the water.
The plants would then go through a midway transition to a peat pot for the extra room and support. We would label the peat pot directly with the name of the plant (always a problem for us).
In comparison with the rather spindly seedlings grown in the “old method” shown at the top and in the pots above, you can see how the seedlings grown using the revised method (in the photograph right) clearly look tortured.
We’d also stagger the start times so that they would be an appropriate size when it came time to move them outdoors. Once spring arrived, it was a slow transition, putting them out at first in a shaded spot for a few hours a day, bringing them in at night. This process hardens them off so they don’t die of shock when introduced to the cold cruel world.
One of our favorite things to do right around planting time is a seedling exchange. We get together with friends and swap. Everyone always ends up with more seedlings than they need and you get access to things you might never have tried on your own. Plus you get to socialize with other gardenopaths and drink beer!
Some recommended resources for you spring dreaming (although there are more on the Resources page as well):
Full Disclosure: None of the links or resources are affiliate links.