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Sowing the Seeds of Dinner: Starting Vegetables Indoors

Growing your own vegetables seems to be in vogue these days. Michelle Obama recently put in a vegetable patch on the White House lawn; the new secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, took a jackhammer to a patch of concrete outside his office to plant an organic community garden; and seeds sales are through the roof as thrifty consumers seek ways to cut costs and improve health. Perhaps the warming weather has also piqued your interest about growing some vegetables. By far the most economical way to do this is starting from seed and although the ground may still be too cold to plant outdoors, starting seeds indoors can help jump start the growing process.  

Growing vegetables from seeds indoors is a bit like house training a puppy. You start indoors in small containers filled with granules and gradually move into the yard with rich soil and sunlight.

Local nurseries may sell seeds, but the largest selection is found either online or through mail order. For the most successful and satisfying garden, choose vegetables that are appropriate for your climate and that you and your family enjoy eating most. It can be fun to experiment with something you don’t usually eat, but keep this to a minimum. Harvesting four bushels of eggplant when no one in the family really likes them could be a bit daunting.

Most heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplants, and melons need a long growing season and can be started indoors in early spring and set outside one to two weeks after the last frost date. (Cool weather plants are usually set out two to four weeks before the frost date.) If you don’t know what the last date of frost of your area is, your local agricultural office can supply this information. Most vegetables transplant easily; however carrots, peas, corn, beans, and radishes are harder to transplant and so their seeds should be directly sowed in the ground.

Germination Station
Seed starting trays are available at your local nursery and provide the easiest growing and transplanting containers. Plant seeds in equal parts of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite, which are also available at local garden stores. The directions on the seed packets usually tell you what space and depth to plant the seeds. Make sure to label and date your containers so you know what’s in each and when it was planted.

Correct temperature is important with seedlings. Warm season vegetables do best when the starting soil is between 75–90º F; putting them on top of the refrigerator or stove will help keep them warm. Once they germinate, keep them between 65–75º F for the most successful results. A warm windowsill will work, but the most success will be found when using fluorescent lighting. Place lighting about two to four inches above seedlings for up to sixteen hours a day.

Movin’ on Up
Once planted, the seeds should be kept covered with a plastic cover to keep moisture in. The cover should be removed once the seedlings appear but keep soil moist by misting with a spray bottle. Don’t let the soil get too wet, however. Once your seedlings start growing leaves, the weakest looking plants should be removed. At this point, begin fertilizing once or twice a week.

Your seedlings will begin to develop several leaves. At this point, transplant them into individual pots filled with potting soil and water thoroughly. The most convenient way to plant your garden is to place the seedlings into peat pots, which can be placed directly into the ground.

Before moving your plants outside, allow them to acclimate to the temperatures outdoors by placing them outside for a couple of hours a day. Each day, you should gradually increase the amount of time outdoors. Also, plan ahead for pets that may want to romp through your freshly planted garden or potential pests that could destroy all your hard work.

And remember, if you do accidentally harvest too many vegetables, neighbors, family, and friends are usually more than happy to take fresh produce off your hands. Happy gardening!