By Julie Bonnin
Green Right Now

Looking for a mid-winter activity that costs little and reaps big benefits for families who are trying to grow more of their own organic food (or flowers)?

Consider starting seeds indoors to plant outside when the weather warms up in your region of the country. Even for experienced gardeners, the sight of little green sprouts emerging from seeds when little else is growing is always a thrill. Not so thrilling is the disappointment that comes if your perky little seedlings start to droop.

Though seed-starting isn’t difficult, it’s not foolproof. There are lots of different ways to do it, and you can buy accessories like covered trays and plug-in warming pads to help the process along. But why not keep things simple, and make this an off-the-grid, green activity that takes advantage of recycled items?

First, the basics:

You need small containers to grow seedlings. Old yogurt cups, egg cartons or seedling pots you’ve kept from previous nursery purchases work well, though any previously used pot should be disinfected. This can be done by soaking in hydrogen peroxide. Or, wash the pots well in warm, sudsy water, then rinse in two cups white vinegar diluted with four to six gallons of water and then allow to air dry. We also love the method of using newspaper to make your own biodegradable pots, an easy project described at ehow.com.

Experts recommend using a soil-less medium for seeds. Most are made primarily from sphagnum peat moss, which is harvested from Canadian peat bogs amid concerns about sustainability. Alternative potting mixes such as coir fiber are coming on the market, but may be difficult to find. Garden soil tends to contain disease organisms, weed seeds and drains poorly, but some people have success with using backyard soil that’s been baked (180 degrees, a few hours), to sterilize. Vermiculite is another easily accessible option.

Fill containers three-fourths of the way full with whatever growing medium you’ve selected. Follow the directions on your seed packet when it comes to planting seeds – tiny ones are often sprinkled just beneath a light layer of potting mix, while larger seeds may need to be buried deeper. (Use a pencil or your finger to get it submerged). Tamp down the soil – but not too much – and use a spray bottle to water until moist, but not dripping wet. (A stronger stream of water might displace your seeds at this point).

Note what the seed package says about germination – some seeds need light, while others need darkness. Most seeds will germinate more quickly if you cover loosely with plastic and set them somewhere slightly warm, like the top of a refrigerator. Once seedlings emerge, they need light from a brightly lit window to grow healthy.

Continue to keep the soil moist, neither letting it get dry or too water-logged.  The first two “leaves” are actually food storage cells, called cotyledons. When your seedling has the second set of “true” leaves, it is big enough to begin fertilizing with a weak organic solution.

The seedlings can be transplanted to separate pots when they are an inch or two high. Then follow the directions on your seed packet when it comes to knowing when it’s time to set them outside. In any case, make the transition outside a gradual one – a few hours outside the first day, a bit more the next and so on – allowing them to acclimate.

The last steps:

Choose a cloudy day to transplant. Dig a hole twice as big as the root ball, water the soil to prevent transplant shock, and settle your plant into its new home.

Copyright © 2008 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media