Starting plants indoors to ready them for spring

Timing is an important factor in gardening. Sow seeds too early, and the emerging plant may become a victim of the last hard frost of the spring. Plant something too late, and it will be cut off by the plunging autumn temperatures before it can bloom.

For this reason, many gardeners opt to start seeds inside before transplanting them to an outdoor garden. This method increases the chances that you'll be able to enjoy a harvest of fruits and vegetables or a beautiful bloom of flowers. This is particularly helpful for varieties with long growing seasons, since the early planting can ensure that the plant reaches maturity before the killing frosts of autumn.

You can start by choosing the seeds you'd like to establish indoors. The Old Farmer's Almanac says you'll want to choose plants that will be well-suited for the outdoor growing conditions at your home. Check the seed packet for how long the plants will take to reach maturity and whether there are any special preparations required, such as nicking the seed coat before planting. You should also make sure seedlings will transplant well when it comes time to move the plant outdoors.

Seed pots and other starter kits are available for indoor planting. However, you can also make do with any number of other containers, such as yogurt cups and egg cartons. The seed company Burpee says any containers you use should first be cleaned, sterilized with a bleach solution, and outfitted with holes in the bottom. Place containers on a shallow, waterproof tray.

Be careful about what you use as a growing medium. The soil should be light and fluffy so it will do a good job of retaining moisture and draining excess water. Marie Iannotti, writing for the home design site The Spruce, says potting soil designed for starting seeds is usually a mix of materials such as peat and vermiculite.

Light is another important factor in starting seeds inside, since seedlings can be weak and spindly if they don't get enough exposure to the sun. You might have a south-facing window or other part of the home that receives an ample eight hours of sunlight, but most gardeners need to use artificial lighting systems.

You'll also need to prepare for a higher electric bill, since the lights over the seedlings may need to be left on for 12 to 15 hours per day. Burpee says you may even need to keep them on for 16 to 18 hours a day for the best results.

Fluorescent lighting suspended over the seed pots is a popular choice among gardeners. You'll also want to make sure the height of the lights can be adjusted; if the light stays in the same place, the seedlings will be damaged by heat as they grow closer to the bulb.

Keep the containers in an area at room temperature, not a place which is too cold or hot. After the seeds are first planted, it can help to keep them in an area where they receive some additional warmth—such as on top of a radiator or refrigerator—until they sprout.

While the seeds are germinating, it helps to cover the containers in plastic wrap to preserve moisture. This covering can be removed once the seedlings begin to sprout. Water the seedlings by pouring water into the tray, which will allow moisture to be absorbed through the holes in the bottom.

As with outdoor planting, you need to be careful about when you sow seeds indoors. Kathy LaLiberte, writing for the Gardener's Supply Company, says you should know how many weeks it takes for seeds to germinate. Sow seeds earlier if you are planting them in a cool area, and later if you plan to grow them in a greenhouse or other warm environment.

Periodically check in on the seedlings to make sure they are growing well. Iannotti says diseases and pests can be more troublesome indoors since there are no natural predators to keep them at bay. If you spot a problem, work quickly to remedy it.

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