By sowing Bibb lettuce or cucumbers indoors (even though they can be direct sown in the garden), you can enjoy your crop weeks earlier and weeks longer, stretching the season.
Some plants take a long time to mature. In most climates, tomatoes. peppers, and eggplants direct sown outdoors after the weather has warmed enough may not have time to produce ripened fruit before the fall frost. If you are a northern gardener, indoor sowing or purchase of bedding plants for some varieties is a necessity due to a short growing season. In this case, it's also wise to choose quick-bearing varieties of vegetables; your seed catalog will tell you which to choose, the dates for planting, and the time to maturity for your zone. On the other hand, cool-weather crops, especially the cabbage family in some parts of the country, need an indoor start in early spring to give them enough time to mature before the onset of hot summer weather. Often such adverse weather conditions as extremely wet, cold, dry, or hot weather may hinder outdoor seeding. Starting seeds indoors will beat the adverse weather and produce plants that are ready to transplant when the weather improves.
Indoor sowing makes more effective use of limited space in the small garden. It allows double cropping in the same space, the second crop following the harvest of the first, thereby increasing your yield of vegetables for the table.
Some small seeds are difficult to handle outdoors. Tiny seeds can be started indoors more easily than out where wind, birds, and heavy rain can be a hindrance. They're much easier to handle indoors, out of the wind.
Expensive seeds can be grown more effectively when started indoors where they will be protected from heavy rains and temperature fluctuations. Small hybrid seeds, for example, produce more plants per packet when sown indoors under controlled conditions.
Double cropping: When you're waiting for room in your garden for a second crop, have the seedlings ready to go into the ground as soon as the first crop is harvested. Time the second crop by growing it indoors to the seedling stage. This is called "double cropping," and it ensures that no growing time is lost. For example, indoor-started cabbage seedlings can be transplanted for a fall crop as soon as bean crops are harvested in the summer, and the amount of time they will need to grow in the garden will be shortened.
Don't forget the advantages of early greenhouse sowing of vegetables destined for the outdoor garden! Some varieties, especially in northern areas, need to be started indoors in order to mature when the weather is most favorable. Follow the cultural directions on Burpee seed packets, and time your plantings according to the climate in your area. If necessary, provide warm soil conditions for best germination.
Remember that it's necessary to harden off plants before setting them outside in their permanent garden location. To harden off plants, gradually accustom them to outdoor condi tions by moving the young plants to a protected spot outside about one week before transplanting time. Shelter them in the greenhouse or covered cold frame at night if temperatures drop near freezing. Don't allow young plants to dry out; be especially watchful on windy or very sunny days when gardens dry out faster.
The proper time to sow seeds indoors depends on your climate and the growing time for your plants, and is figured from the dates of the last spring frost for your area. Some plants are hardier than others and can be transferred to the garden earlier in spring—as soon as the ground can be prepared. These plants can stand a light frost. Some seeds take a long time to sprout, and some plants take a longer time to grow to transplant size. All of these factors determine when to sow seeds indoors. Fortunately, the information you need to sow on a timely basis is on the seed packet and in the charts in this chapter. Enter the information in your notebook. Keep the average date of the last frost for your local area and then plan from the first date backward. In the garden, identify your seeds with a marker with the date planted and the time needed for growth to transplant size.
When starting seeds indoors, you can plant with a complete starter kit (you might try Burpee's Seed N' Start®), or with peat pellets that contain a special planting mix with nutrients for the young seedlings. You can use and reuse plastic or wooden trays, 2 to 4 inches deep, which permit planting many seeds in a row, three or four rows wide.
You can even recycle plastic or cardboard milk cartons, egg cartons, metal cans, disposable drinking cups, or other objects as seed-starting containers. Whatever is handy will work, but if you improvise or reuse containers, you must clean them well to eliminate soil-borne disease, and you must poke holes in the bottom to provide good drainage. (To clean, use one part laundry bleach to nine parts water and soak for 5 minutes.)
Fill the cleaned pots, flats, or containers with moistened planting mix. Moistening the planting mix is most easily done right in the bag by adding water at the rate of 1 quart of water to 6 quarts of formula; retie the bag and shake vigorously to distribute water evenly, then let it drain. If using large flats or trays, sow seed sparingly in shallow furrows 2 to 3 inches apart or according to the instructions on the seed packet, and cover lightly with planting medium. Allow- plenty of space between seeds so they won't become too crowded before they are thinned or transplanted. Crowding will produce weak, spindly seedlings and encourages the spread of disease. Give seeds the room they need as they grow their roots and whatever the seed size, be sure to follow the planting directions on the seed packet.
In addition to keeping an informal record in your garden notebook, mark and label each variety of planted seeds with a plant stake, as it's difficult to tell one plant type from another when the seedlings first emerge.
Once your seeds are planted in the moist planting mix, you need only wet the seed and soil surface with a fine spray of water. Then seal the entire container inside a clear plastic bag, which will produce a greenhouse effect and prevent evaporation as it holds in warmth. If the planting mix begins to dry out, mist carefully, but do not disturb the seeds. Too much moisture at the soil level can cause damping off, where potential seedlings die at the soil level. To avoid overheating, keep the covered container out of direct sunlight.
As soon as the first seeds have sprouted, remove the plastic cover. Temperature is important in the early stages of seed growing. Seeds germinate at different temperatures, but most do well between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Consider using one of the electric, indoor bottom-heating trays especially designed to maintain the appropriate temperature for starting seeds. Models with adjustable and fixed temperature controls are readily available at garden centers and from garden catalogs. If you use heat, your plants will emerge more quickly, and once they do, you must provide good light. Keep the flats or containers in a warm, draft-free place. If you do not have enough room for the seedlings in a sunny window, use fluorescent lights.
In large flats, group your plants so that slow-germinating types share one flat and the fast-germinating types share another. Don't mix fast- and slow-germinating seeds in one container, because you want them to be ready for transplanting at the same time.
When the planting mix surface begins to dry out, water your plants carefully with a mister. If more water is needed, stand the containers in a tray of water until the mix becomes saturated from the bottom up, then, remove the containers from the tray of water and allow to drain thoroughly. Never let the planting mix dry out completely.
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