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How to Start Vegetable Seeds Indoors

While many vegetables will grow just fine and produce bountiful harvests from seeds planted directly in the ground, some need a head start, especially in areas with short growing seasons. Here are some general steps to follow to successfully start sowing your seeds indoors.

  1. Read the information on the seed packet. It will tell you when to start your seeds and what they need in the way of soil and air temperature, humidity and light, as well as any special pre-planting treatment.

  2. Start seeds in a flat or a seed starting tray with holes in the bottom for drainage, such as Henry Field’s Seed Starting Tray.

  3. Fill the tray to about 1 1/4 inches from the top with a sterile growing medium made especially for starting seeds, such as Henry Field's Seed Starter. Put the filled tray in a larger pan and add water to about halfway up the sides of the flat. Let the flat stand overnight to moisten the soil.

  4. Press the seeds into the planting mix to the depth recommended on the seed packet. Water with a misting spray bottle or with a fine overhead spray from a watering can. Keep the growing medium evenly moist, but never waterlogged.

  5. Ensure sufficient humidity by placing a thin pane of glass on top of the flat, and keep it in a spot where you can provide the soil and air temperatures and the amount of light recommended on your seed packet. An alternative to this, is to use Henry Field’s Mini Electric Greenhouse, which will control humidity for you.

  6. Make up for any deficiency of sunlight by placing fluorescent light above the flat. Keep the lights on around the clock until the seeds germinate.

  7. Watch for signs of germination: The first thing you'll see will be a set of what appear to be small leaves. These are actually food storage cells called cotyledons. (Germination times vary greatly; again, your seed packet will tell you when to expect the first signs of life.) Continue to water so that the soil stays evenly moist.

  8. When the next set of true leaves appear, thin the seedlings to the spacing recommended on the seed packet.

  9. Choose the smallest and weakest-looking seedlings, pull them out gently so you don't disturb the remaining plants, and add them to the compost pile. Begin to feed the plants once a week with a good fertilizer, such as Henry Field's Vegetable Food.

  10. Transplant the seedlings to individual pots filled with potting soil when you see two or three sets of leaves. Just before transplanting, water the seedlings, then gently lift them out with a spoon or a miniature trowel.

  11. Set each seedling into its pot, carefully firming the soil around the roots. Water gently but well, and continue feeding until it's time to harden off the plants and move them to the garden.

    Additional Tips: Some seeds need a period of chilling before you plant them; others need to be soaked in water overnight or scarified (nicked with a file or knife) to speed germination. Some seeds need light to germinate; others require total darkness. Read your seed packets carefully.

    Peat pots make ideal homes for transplanted seedlings, because at planting time you set pot itself into the soil, thus avoiding damage to delicate roots.

    When starting seed indoors, sunlight is ideal, but seedlings need between 12 and 16 hours of sunlight per day to grow. That means some added artificial light is needed. Place containers on windowsills or below windows. Place your artificial light about 1-3 inches above seedlings for the first few weeks, then raise to 4-6 inches until transplant time. Also, rotate your trays so that the seedlings do not get spindly. Mirrors or aluminum foil can be used to reflect the light and give the seedlings the fullest benefit.


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