Growing your own seedlings is not only fun, but it can be a nice late winter-early spring project to get you excited for warmer days to come. If the current pandemic has made you feel like your world is uncontrollable or if you are worried about the coronavirus, your health, finances, and empty store shelves, you are not alone. People are planting more vegetable gardens, and nurseries and seed companies are receiving unprecedented business.
I usually start my tomato and pepper plants in late February, early March, when we still have many long days of cold before planting season, but right still isn't too late to get started! Before you start planting, I would recommend you calculate, which growing zone you live in. This will determine your last frost date, which on the back of the seed packet will give you an estimated time for you to start planting. Growing your own seedlings can also allow you to grow unusual and heirloom varieties that aren’t readily available in most garden stores (most stores only carry popular hybrid varieties).
To grow your own seedlings, you will need seedling flats, seed starting soil, a heat pad and grow lights if you live in an area with a dark and cold early spring. If you live in a warmer area you can grow seedlings without grow lights in a greenhouse or cold frame. Seed packets and catalogs will give you seed start times, back date those a couple of weeks after your last projected frost date and put together your planting schedule.
I suggest labeling all your crop varieties the first year so you can keep track of how they do in your garden. This will help you narrow your selection for next year to the most successful varieties. Keep your planted seeds moist and warm with a heat pad to encourage germination.
Once the seeds have sprouted you can move the heat pad to the next batch of newly planted seeds. Seedlings like 12-16 hours of sunlight per day, putting your lights on a timer will help ensure they receive the same amount of light each day.
If you are growing in a greenhouse but there are fewer than 12 hours of natural daylight you might was to add a couple of hours of grow light time for maximum results. Water regularly and don’t allow your seedlings dry out.
A week or so before you transplant the seedlings, it is important to “harden them off” them, meaning slowly prepare them for the elements of the great outdoors. If they have been grown inside, start by adding a fan to move the air and strengthen their stems. After a few days, bring them outside to a wind-protected partially shaded area for a few hours, bringing them back in before nightfall. Up the number of hours every few days, gradually move them into full sun and expose them to wind.