Starting Seeds Indoors With Fluorescent Lights
The basics for seed starting are the same for flowers and vegetables. The biggest difference with most plants or vegetables is spacing and the size of the starting container. If you are only doing a few weeks head start (some vegetable starting times are listed below) then the smallest pods are just fine and when the seedlings are large enough they can be transplanted into larger containers or outdoors.
Once you have selected your vegetable seeds for your garden, it's time to start your seeds in the seed starter kit. I used the Burpee Ultimate Seed Starting system. It is important to read your seed packets for the approximate seed starting time (if they are recommended to start indoors). Here are a the start dates I have found work well for some of my favorite veggies:
Tomatoes - start 6-8 weeks before outdoor transplant - outside end of May (for Ohio Zone 5b)
Butternut Squash - 3 weeks before outdoor transplant - outside mid-May
Pumpkins - 3 weeks before outdoor transplant - outside mid-May
Spinach - 6-8 weeks before outdoor transplant - outside mid-May
Broccoli - 6-8 weeks before outdoor transplant - can be hardened to the outdoors in mid-late April
Corn - 4 weeks before outdoor transplant - outside early June
Green beans - 4-6 weeks before outdoor transplant - outside mid-May
Also, remain mindful that some seeds are not recommended for indoor seed starting. Some examples are carrots, cilantro and white onion. Often, these plants are too delicate to transplant. These should be directly sown into the garden or container they will remain in.
In late winter I do get a little over zealous and plant my seedlings a few weeks early. In most crops, this is acceptable (and I find it creates larger/stronger plants for outdoor transplant) however you must be mindful to transplant the seedlings out of the 1x1 units into larger peat pots or containers AS SOON AS THEY DEVELOP TRUE LEAVES (more than just the tiny round cotyledons or first leaves). Tomatoes are especially important to give more room after 3-4 weeks. You may also start the seeds in larger pots from the beginning to avoid multiple transplants.
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When you open your seed starter kit you will first need to activate the soil pellets. I make sure they are all lying flat in each cell (to ensure even expanding) and then put them under a steady stream of warm tap water until they fully expand (they will fill close to the top of each cell). Note: you do not need to use a starter kit, any quality garden/vegetable soil in any sterile planting container is suitable. Just ensure there is proper drainage and that the soil is suitable for vegetables if that is what you are planting.
You then use a fork to "fluff" or mix the soil, and then pat each cell VERY lightly so it is neat and fairly flat. Most seeds I place right on top then barely cover with about 1/8 inch of soil. With larger seeds such as Pumpkin and squash seeds you can push them down so you can just barely see the top edge of the seed sticking out. One of the most important points here is DO NOT PLANT YOUR SEEDS TOO DEEP. They must be shallow enough for the light to stimulate growth.
Place the clear plastic cover over your seed starter kit (usually included with kit) and place the tray directly under your 4 foot florescent light (my light is nearly touching the top of the plastic at first). Give your plants 10-16 hours of light each day and be sure to keep the soil moist. At this early stage I generally use a spray bottle to gently mist the soil daily.
As soon as sprouts develop (any sign of green) prop up one edge of the clear plastic for air circulation. Once all of your seeds have sprouted remove the clear plastic lid entirely. My seedlings generally germinate much faster than the packages say when I use these methods. Ensure that your shelves are in an area that maintains at least upper 60s to 70s temperatures.
When your seedlings begin developing true leaves you should also ensure proper air circulation and encourage a strong root system by placing a small fan nearby for a few hours a day. The plants should only move very gently with the fan on low. This will keep your greens from becoming "leggy" and strengthen all of your plants for their eventual life outdoors.
Water daily! In a few weeks, it will be time to move the garden outside!