A cost-effective way to grow flowers and vegetables from seed

Annette Ipsan
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Not only can you save money growing your own seedlings, but you can also choose from a greater variety of flowers and vegetables. Some vegetables like corn and beans and peas are sown directly into the ground outside, but annual flowers and many vegetables are best when started indoors in late winter or spring. Starting seeds indoors will give you earlier flowers and vegetables and also greatly increase the probability of seed germination. Here are instructions for the method I use. If you want to try it this year, though, you should get started right away.

Choose your Seed Zinnias, sunflowers, marigolds, cosmos, salvia, tomatoes, and peppers are all easy to grow indoors from seed. And, you'll find that seed catalogs offer many colors and varieties of these favorites. Some of my favorite easy-to-grow varieties are "Snowball" white marigold, "Primrose Lady" lemon marigold, "Blue Victoria" purple salvia, "Blue Horizon" periwinkle blue ageratum which is a tall variety great for cutting, "Sunrise" sunflower, "Profusion" cherry zinnia, and various tall zinnias. Decide when you need to plant your seeds based on the recommendations on the package.

Purchase Containers Choose something at least 2 1/2" deep. 5 oz. Dixie cups or 2 peat pots work well. If using Dixie cups, make 2 long slits in bottom of each cup for drainage. Stand the pots in a sturdy square or rectangular tray or plastic plant flat. Peppers do not like to be transplanted so it is recommended to plant these in peat pots which can be planted along with the pepper plant.

Prepare Planting Medium Purchase a bag of Pro Mix (sphagnum peat moss, perlite, vermiculite mix) from the garden center or use a good quality potting soil if it has peat moss and perlite mixed into it. Whichever medium you use, put some in a large container and moisten it with warm water before planting.

Fill Containers Fill each container to approximately " from brim. Lightly press soil down into cup. Soil will sink down but this will give you room to add soil later as seedlings grow taller and may need the extra soil support around them.

Plant Seeds Plant 2 or 3 seeds per cup at the depth recommended on the package. Place them at least " apart in your cup so that the roots don't grow tightly together if more than 1 germinates. Label your pots individually using popsicle sticks or a permanent marker, or place masking tape on the side of the tray to indicate how many rows you have of each type of plant.

Water Seeds Since soil or pro mix is already moist, very lightly water your seeds-just a few drops or a few squirts from a spray bottle. Then cover your seedling tray with plastic wrap to prevent pots from drying out. Covering them should keep seeds moist enough until germination.

Give them Warmth Place your seed trays in a warm room, around 70-75 degrees. They do not need sunlight until germination. They will not be in this room very long, so just find the warmest room in the house and lay them on the floor or under a table. Check every 2-3 days for moisture and germination.

Place in Light Once seeds have germinated, remove plastic covering and give 14-16 hours of light per day. Air temperature in the 60s is fine now. Since windowsill light is not sufficient, set up artificial light using inexpensive shop lights and use plant growing bulbs in the fixtures. For convenience, use an automatic timer to automatically turn the lights on and off each day. The lights should only be 2" above your plants. Shop lights have a chain to easily move the lights up and down as needed. Lights can hang from shelves or you can make light stands from scrap wood and a few nails. Here's how: make 2 upside down "T"s using 2"x4"s, one for each end of the light. On top, nail a 2"x2"x52" piece of wood to attach the two "T"s. The light will hang under this long strip. Add a headless nail on top of this strip to hold the light chain. Plants can sit on floor with lights held up using this homemade light stand. Wood "T"s can easily be disassembled for storage.

Begin Feeding Now is the time to begin fertilizing your seedlings with a water soluble plant food such as Miracle Gro. Feed them weekly at half the recommended strength. As you feed and water your seedlings aim for consistent moisture, but not sogginess.

Transplant Extras If you have more than 1 seedling in each pot, gently lift extras out of the soil using something like a popsicle stick. Replant these into new pots or into pots that had no germination. Always water your transplants immediately after you plant them. If you don't want the extras, just pinch them off at the base so that the roots of the remaining seedling are not disturbed. As your plants grow, their stems may be longer than desired, depending on the variety of plant. You can fill-in the rest of the pot with soil since the soil sinks over time. This will bring the soil up the stem further. Or, if plant becomes too tall, gently remove it from pot and plant it deeper in a larger pot if the original pot is not deep enough.

"Harden Off" Seedlings This term refers to the process of getting your plants accustomed to the change of environment they will experience when you plant them outdoors. You can begin 2 weeks before planting time. If your seedlings were placed in direct sun all day they would become scorched. So, for the first few days place them in sun outside for only an hour or two each day. Or, leave them out a bit longer if it's a cloudy day. Place them in shade after that short time period. Gradually increase sunlight hours. If you do not use a cold frame, bring plants inside at night and during severe weather that would injure the young plants. They should not be left out in wind, heavy rain, or when temperatures are below 45 degrees F. A few minutes of daily care is critical during this time. Soil will also dry out quickly in outdoor sun.

Make a Cold Frame (Optional) You may want to build or buy a cold frame to make "hardening off" easier, especially if you have many flats of plants. A cold frame is helpful because plants can remain outside during the "hardening off" period and still remain protected from sun, wind, rain, frost. Seedlings in a cold frame still need to be tended every day, but flats don't need to be moved around. ( This paragraph can be ended here if space is tight) A good size for a homemade cold frame is 4'x4'. It is a bottomless frame with sturdy hinges to hold the top on. The sides of the frame slope down starting at 18" high in the back down to 12" in the front. The top would have a wood frame to hold glass or plexiglass so sun would come through it. Cover glass top of cold frame with a sheet after desired amount of sun has been given each day. Cover sheet with bricks or rocks so breeze doesn't blow it off. Open or close the top of the cold frame during the day depending on the weather, using bricks to prop it open a few inches if you don't want full exposure to the climate. Keep cold frame closed at night to protect from cold and frost. A cold frame will not necessarily protect from a "freeze. Instead of building one, you can try using 4 rectangular bales of hay, place an old in tact door or window over the bales of hay.

Plant and Enjoy! At proper planting time, around May 15 in Frederick, plant your seedlings into garden. Remove Dixie cup or other plastic container before planting. Peat pots can go directly into ground, but peel off the top edge of peat pot if it will stand above the soil level.

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