Early spring is such an exciting time for gardeners! February and March are prime time to start some garden seeds. Cool season crops, such as arugula, broadbeans, corn salad, kale, peas, pac choi and raddichio may all be seeded directly sometime in February or March. Sweetpeas and cilantro may also be sown early.
Other seeds can be started indoors to help you get a jump on the season. They include leeks, sweet onions, parlsy, apsaragus, broccoli, cabbage, caulifower, celery, fennel, lettuce, parsley and peppers - some to be seeded now and some varieties in March.
Some of my favourite early seeds are Broad Windsor broadbeans, Calabrese broccoli (Yum, yum!) Derby Day cabbage ( great for our cool wet springs), Palladio peas and Cascadia snow peas. A few years ago, my husband gave me some Drunken Woman lettuce seeds as a joke - tee hee - and it has become one of my favourites now too.
Begin by reading your seed packets. They give great information on timing, light requirements, sowing depth and optimal temperature for each kind of seed. Timing is especially important.
It is very tempting to sow lots of seeds now, but it is best ot stick to the dates on the packet. If it says sow seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before our last frost date, don't sow any earlier.
You will only end up with tall, spindly and crowded transplants that don't do well.
For the Metro Vancouver, the generally accepted last frost date is March 28. Therefore, many cool season crops can be sown within the next week or two.
Most seeds need the following conditions - warmth, light and moisture. Add good air circulation for your transplants. So you will need grow lights or a light windowsill, a heat mat or warm room and a watering can with a misting nozzle if possible. I start most of my seeds in a plastic greenhouse using heat mats, and sometimes a supplemental heater under the bench, but I've started many on windowsills and on the top of my fridge.
Also needed are a sterile seeding mix and containers, You can use purchased cell trays or pots, or recycled yogurt containers or egg cartons.
If you use recycled containers, make sure they have drain holes, and are very clean. Give them a quick wash with water and a little bleach.
I've also had great success using straight compost as a seeding mix. It must be well rotted, screened and crumbly.Another great option are peat pellets. Wet these little disks and sow your seeds straight on.
Since switching to straight compost, I've had no problems with damping off ( a disease that kills new seedlings), and get great sturdy, green seedlings. Other supplies that will be useful are a pencil or a chopstick, plant tags, again either purchased or recycled from old blind slats, a sharpie and some clear plastic flat covers, or clear plastic sheets.
Begin by wetting your soil. It is best to do this about an hour before seeding so it has time to drain and warm. It should be the consistency of a wrung out sponge ie evenly moist and just holding together.
Fill your containers to 1/2 " below the top and tamp the soil down with your fingers or the bottom of another container. Poke holes for your seeds, paying attention to recommended planting depths. I usually plant one seed per cell in a cell container, 3-4 seeds per 4" pot and 5-6 seeds in a cell pack.
It is very tempting again to plant lots of seeds together, but this only leads to overcrowding. If you have more seeds than you think you can use, team up with a gardening friend. And remember you can do successive sowings of many crops like lettuce and spinach.
Cover your seeds, again referring to your seed packet for light requirements, and tamp down lightly. You shouldn't need to water right now because you are using pre-wetted soil. Remember to label your containers with the tags and Sharpie.
Include the variety and the date sown. Cover your containers with your chosen plastic, and put them in their growing site. If you are using grow lights, position them 4 - 6' above your flats, and adjust them when necessary to keep them that height above the seedlings too. They should be on 16 hours a day. A timer might be handy here. And now wait!
Check for water daily, waterering only enough to keep the soil lightly moistened. Remember that wrung out sponge. Soon you will see a little crook poking out of the soil, or a slight green haze across your flat. Success! Yippee!
Taking care of your seedlings is easy too. Good light, sufficient moisture, warmth and good air circulation are what they need. So when the seeds have germinated, take off the plastic covers.
Begin fertilizing when the first true leaves appear. You will see a pair of seed leaves first, and then another pair of true leaves that look different. Use 1/2 strength fish fertilizer or another balanced fertlizer (20-20-20) once a week,
After a few weeks when the seedlings are growing well, switch to full strength fertilizer. Sometimes a small fan, turned on the seedling a few hours a day is helpful to prevent spindly growth.
If you see seedlings just laying down and dying, you may have damping off, a fungus. It is caused by overwatering and poor air circulation. There is a product called No Damp, which will stop it in its tracks.
I've tried strong chamomile tea too, for damping off, with limited success.
Your seedlings will tell you if they are happy, They will be a bright healthy green, with sturdy straight stalks. They will make you smile when you see them grow, and as you dream about those crisp, crunch veggies and gorgeous bouquets you will harvest. Have fun!