You get a certain sense of satisfaction when eating a tomato you started from a tiny seed so many months before. But every spring, when you encounter a display of garden seeds, you may find yourself thinking, "Maybe next year." Germinating seeds can be intimidating, but using some tricks of the trade will help you start your garden from seed.
Choose high-quality, fresh seeds. Seeds have a limited shelf life (generally between one and four years depending on the seed), but some will last well if sealed in a jar or resealable plastic bag and kept in a cool, dark place. Verify the quality of your seeds by putting a few in a damp paper towel in either a glass jar or plastic bag (not tightly sealed) and place them in a warm place. Check the seeds every few days and keep the towel moist. Within fifteen days, viable seeds will have sprouted.
Some seeds are better sown outdoors once the threat of frost is past. Peas, beans, spinach, carrots, corn and beets are examples. In this case, follow the seed pack instructions for depth and spacing. Young plants need plenty of nutrients so do not crowd seeds by oversowing your garden. Planting too deep and overwatering also should be avoided when planting seeds directly outdoors.
Seeds such as broccoli, tomatoes, squash, melons, eggplant and peppers should be started t indoors several weeks before your last frost. Use a shallow planting tray (egg cartons work well) and a soil-less planting mix. Make your own planting mix with equal parts sand and vermiculite or with equal parts fine particle pine bark, sphagnum peat moss and perlite. Before the seeds sprout, warmth is more important than sun. Keep your seeds at around 70 degrees F, either with a heating mat or in a warm room. Once the seeds sprout, place them in a window with southern exposure. If you have short days or inadequate sunlight, use fluorescent lights hung a couple of inches above your sprouts.
Use a spray bottle to thoroughly wet your seeds and the planting mix. Try to keep the moisture level from becoming too dry while not allowing it to become soggy. Alternately, set your tray of plants in a large container with an inch of water in the bottom and allow your seedlings to absorb water through the bottom. Remove them when the surface soil begins to become dark with moisture and allow them to drain. Cover your germinating seeds with a sheet of plastic or glass to help maintain moisture.