Starting Seeds

Get your garden growing early with these easy tips.
Ellen Riley

Small pots of emerging stems, leaves, and roots, sprouting on the kitchen counter, are a daily reminder of a new garden's promise. It's also an opportunity to experiment--and learn a new plant's personality from the start.

The methods are easy, and the amount of equipment involved depends on the desired results. If you enjoy starting a few favorites for the simple pleasure of watching them grow, the supplies you need are minimal. If your interest is in production on a larger scale, there are ways to accomplish this with little fuss.

Most seeds germinate in anything that holds soil and drains well. For maximum success, use a lightweight seed-starting mix that provides good air circulation and stays evenly moist. Using heavy garden soil often causes seedlings to rot or fall victim to diseases.

An eggshell is a perfect place for a single seedling. As you use eggs, save the shells to make tiny seed pots. Break the egg toward the narrow top end, leaving a large portion of the shell intact. Rinse it with water, and carefully poke a drainage hole in the bottom with a sharp knife. Fill it with moist soil, and plant your seed. The egg carton is a handy way to keep the shells upright and serves as a tray to catch water. When seedlings are ready, gently crush each shell, and plant. Roots grow through the cracks, and the shells add a small amount of calcium to the soil.

Another convenient container is a newspaper pot. A tool called a Paper Pot Maker aids in folding a strip of paper into a small vessel perfectly sized for one large seed or several small ones. The pot drains easily, and the newspaper does not deteriorate when damp. When seedlings are ready to set out, simply loosen the bottom folds, and plant--pot and all.

If you choose to start a lot of seeds, a small greenhouse keeps the project contained and allows you to regulate several factors that are important to germination. Bob Hicks, of Park Seed in Greenwood, South Carolina, says, "A vented plastic dome allows all available light to come in and keeps drafts off the plants.

"Where a lot of homeowners fail is in the early stages of germination," Bob says. "Problems arise when they start to overwater and expose the new seedlings to cool air right away. Once the seeds sprout, open the vents on the plastic top so there is air exchange and the humidity level, necessary for germination, begins to drop. The air is still more moist than the rest of the house, but the seedlings are not exposed to drafts."

Once the new plants have several sets of leaves, remove the top, and place the tray in brighter light. Gradually get them ready to move outdoors by increasing the amount of light slowly. "Remember, plants are just like people. I lived in Florida for many years, and you could always tell people who just arrived. They were totally red and blistered, and that's the same thing that happens to a plant when you move it into sunlight without acclimating it to the environment."

A seed is a miraculous thing. Give it water, soil, and light, and things begin to happen. Treat yourself to a gardening wonder, and get a jump on spring.