Starting a plant from seed is great way to get a jump start on gardening season, and certainly a cost-effective alternative to the local nursery. Plus there are the bragging rights that will make you the toast of the locavore crowd. It isn't as hard as you think, as long as you start simple. Some do's and don'ts of indoor seed sprouting below:
Commit to your new relationship
Before deciding between eggplants or sweet peppers, look at the larger picture of what you've got going on in your life and how much time (be realistic) you will have to devote to horticultural endeavours. "Growing seeds requires constant attention," says Yvonne Cunnington, author of the Country Gardener blog and frequent contributor to Canadian Gardening magazine. "Unless you're really sure you want to make the commitment, I would suggest buying pre-grown plants from a nursery." In other words, if you have a work project/puppy/home reno/hot new boyfriend/cottage or anything else that might eat up your time over gardening season, this probably isn't the year for indoor seeding. "You can't just decide to go away for the weekend," says Ms. Cunnington, explaining that dampness and general growth progress need to be monitored daily.
Read the fine print … all the way to the bottom
Different seed varieties require different methods of care, timelines and temperatures. It's a lot to keep track of, but luckily almost all seed packets list the specifics on the back where you'll find everything from weather and lighting preferences to optimum planting times. Instructions will also include suggested transplant timing. Work backward to figure out the seed start date, then, no matter how psyched you are to put seed to soil, stick to it: "I have a friend who is so excited about growing her own veggies this year, and she already has bean plants that are six inches tall. Beans need warm soil, so she'll have to wait until the end of May to put them in the soil." Plants will get stringy and overgrown if they stay potted for too long, so too early is just as bad, and maybe worse than too late.
Sow only what you can reap
Most of us are hardwired with an anti-wasting/more-is-more instinct, but unless the plan is to operate a farmer's market out of your backyard (illegal, by the way) be sure that you assess your family's needs before planting those seeds. "Most packs will contain around 25 seeds, but who wants to end up with that many tomato plants?" says Ms. Cunnington, advising that it's best to plant a few safety sprouts (a couple of dead soldiers is normal), but not an entire army. Alternatively, you can try her doubling up method, which means planting two seeds side-by-side in every cell allotted for a seed – if you're using the pre-partitioned containers that come in most seed starting kits this will be obvious – then snipping off the weaker of the two after both seeds have sprung.
Become a water whisperer
One of the most elusive aspects of seed growing is finding that watering sweet spot. Too little moisture and your crop will obviously dry up, but overdo it and you risk the dreaded "damping off," a fungal disease that will probably mean sudden death for your seedlings. "Once you spot fungus, it's generally too late," says Ms. Cunnington, who recommends frequent checks and light watering. Soil should always feel damp, but not wet: "Like a sponge that has been wrung out," Ms. Cunnington suggests.
Another way to regulate moisture in the early stages is to cover your planting container with a plastic bag (the kind you use for sandwiches should do it). This will mimic a green house environment and should be left for the first few days. When you see something poking through the soil, poke a few holes in the bag, then once you see actual plants, you can take it off.
Be a gardening green nose
Chances are, you will learn a lot in your first seed season (and every season thereafter). Like any proud parent, you'll assume that every triumph and setback are permanently seared in your memory, but the truth is, a lot gets forgotten in the nine months between seed seasons. "My husband used to keep an Excel spread sheet," says Ms. Cunnington, and while that kind of fastidiousness is probably a bit excessive for most people, a log or gardening journal is a great idea. Be sure to staple in various seed packages, since you'll want to re-buy the ones that blossomed (and avoid the ones that bombed). And yes, your friends will probably think you're a bit of a poindexter, but they'll shut up after enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of your labour.
*And don't do this: Forget to label your containers. All sprouts look the same in the early stages.
Special to The Globe and Mail