Starting Plants Indoors: Getting a Jumpstart on Spring Gardening Season

Starting your own plants indoors is one way to save on spring gardening expenses. One of the common spring market sights is flats of started vegetables and flowers. While this is a great way to get your garden going as many as four weeks earlier than growing from seed planted directly in your garden, plants cost more than seeds. In addition, you have the satisfaction of having something green and growing inside your home during those, chilly gray days leading up to spring.

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What you will need to start plants indoors:

  • A sunny window or skylight with at least six hours of daylight or a grow lamp
  • An area that can be protected from pets and family members
  • A room or area with a reliable heat source
  • Growing medium (varies with the plant and method)
  • Containers (peat pots are nice)
  • Chlorine free water
  • Fertilizer
  • Seeds

Plants require three things to grow – light, soil, and water. In winter, they will also need heat. If you are “gardening” inside you home, you will need a space that allows you to provide your plants with their basic needs, and you will need to be able to protect them from pets, small children, and clumsy (but well-intentioned) adults. Your indoor garden might be a window sill, or it might be an entire room devoted to plants, but the principles remain the same. Dogs might knock plants over, but cats present a special problem when it comes to plants. Their instincts lead them to nibble on green things, and to dig in dirt to bury their biological waste.

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When preparing a space for your indoor mini-garden, position it in a location that is away from normal traffic flow. If you can manage to have it near a window, your plants will benefit from it; however, the weak, wintry light might not be sufficient for healthy plant growth. Grow lights – that is artificial lighting that is created to have the correct light composition for good plant growth – offer a way to lengthen and strengthen the light available to your indoor plants. They range in cost and style from specialized bulbs that will fit in a desk clamp-lamp—around $15 - $20 USD to fluorescent arrays specially constructed for greenhouses, starting at around $80 and up.

For households with pets, a glass terrarium can offer a protected growing environment for your plants. These can be purchased started at around $25.00 for a simple house shaped terrarium. However, with a little careful shopping you might be able to get one for less. A discarded fish tank can easily be converted to a terrarium, and if it has its fluorescent fixture, fitting it out with a grow light is not difficult. Terrariums also have the added benefit of being easy to heat – a useful feature if your home temperature tends to be less than stable.

If you are starting plants that will be moved to an outdoor bed, peat pots or other disposable containers make this process easy. Such containers also cut down on transplant shock. Another handy planting method is to use peat soil pellets. Soil pellets look like miniature hockey pucks until you soak them in water. They will then expand to little fireplug shapes, that are about three inches high. In a pinch, you can use cardboard cartons (milk cartons, juice cartons) as soil containers or even use folded newspaper origami boxes – just make sure that the company uses biodegradable organic ink. The goal is to have a container that will either biodegrade when placed in the ground or that can be easily peeled away without disturbing the roots.

Another option is to purchase a Jiffy greenhouse. These are trays that come equipped with peat soil pellets and a clear, plastic lid. Please note that these will not deter a determined cat. They are too fragile. However, they can protect tender seedlings from drafts while admitting light.

To start your seeds, place one or two seeds in a peat pot full of moist potting soil on a prepared peat pellet. Use a 12-12-12 mixture, if possible when using potting soil. The numbers refer to the balance of nutrients in the fertilizer. Check the directions on seed packets to see if your selection is compatible with an indoor start. Some plants are better for this process than others. For example, tomatoes do very well; corn does not – although starting your plants in disposable pots helps reduce transplant shock.

Keep the soil lightly moist, but not overly saturated. Check your plants daily, keeping an eye out for insect pests or the white webbing associated with damping off. You can help promote good drainage by setting the pots or plugs on a shallow layer of gravel in the bottom of your tray or terrarium. If using a grow bulb or heater for your growing space, keep a close eye on the temperature. Most plants like a range between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but will tolerate up to 80 degrees. If you are using a grow light that is suspended directly above your plants, you might need to raise it up as the plants grow.

Photo credit: Ronald (Ron) Douglas Frazier via Foter.com / CC BY

When the weather warms and your plant babies are getting to be gangly adolescents, you can set them out on a porch or patio for an hour or two each day to get some real sunlight and to begin the process known as “hardening off”. This increase their ability to survive being planted directly into the ground when the weather has settled enough for that to be an option.

Planting peat pots or pellets is easy. Dig a hole slightly deeper than the pot or pellet, and ease pot and plant into the prepared garden soil. Back fill around the pot, and slightly over the top, tamping the dirt down gently, but not too firmly. With due care, your little plant will hardly notice that it has changed location.

I hope this easy tutorial will help you set up your own indoor garden nursery and to get a jumpstart on those early spring gardening chores. As always, if you enjoyed this article, share it. Add you own observations, comments and ideas. Gardening is a process, and like many things, is always better when ideas are shared.

James G. Craig
 

James G. Craig is a gardening enthusiast who splits his spare time between growing vegetables, preening his flower gardens, and blogging about his experiences at the Gardener Corner.

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