How to get a head start on spring by starting tender seedlings indoors under fluorescent lights.
When it seems there is little to do in the garden, the most restless gardeners are busy getting a head start on spring, sowing seeds in February or March and tending to tiny seedlings that will be ready to transplant into the garden after all danger of frost has passed.
There are plenty of reasons to work with seeds. At the top of the list is the nearly endless variety of seeds for annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables that are available. Open any seed catalog and take a quick head count -- then compare that with the scant number of plant varieties that are most often seen at neighborhood nurseries.
Cost is another reason to work with seed. You may be amazed when you see just how far a flat of annuals will go if you’re trying to fill in a large space, like an edging to a driveway. Growing dozens and dozens of seedlings on your own can you give you the lush look you long for.
In order to have seedlings that are mature enough to transplant into the garden early in the spring, it’s necessary to start them indoors, under lights. The easiest way to make your own light garden is to use an inexpensive fluorescent fixture. Special wide spectrum lamps most closely approximate sunlight, but outfitting the fixture with one warm white and one cool white lamp will do just as well. Hang the fixture no more than two inches from the top of the plants, raising it as the seedlings grow. This is where most novices will fail – seedlings that have to stretch for the light will grow weak and spindly.
Water carefully. If you’re not going to water from the bottom, using a turkey baster to water will help to avoid a wash-out. As soon as seedlings have developed two sets of leaves, begin applying a weak solution of liquid fertilizer. A good rule of thumb is to mix it at one-half the strength recommended by the manufacturer.
Seedlings that have been raised and pampered indoors must go through the process of ‘hardening off’ before they can be transplanted into the garden. The key to success here is to gradually expose them to the elements to reduce transplanting shock. Starting at least one week before they are to be planted outdoors, place the young plants outside in a protected spot for at least half the day.
Progressively leave them out a little longer and in a more exposed location until they can fend for themselves outdoors. Take heed, however, of slugs and snails -- a whole winter’s worth of careful nurturing can disappear overnight if your seedlings fall prey to these pests.