Garden Tips

Making it through the Winter: Starting Seeds Indoors

To be honest, my husband and I plant seeds in March and April mainly to have something green growing! We get most of our seeds from Fedco, a cooperative in Maine that sells at very reasonable prices. Even if you don’t buy from Fedco, it is worth getting their catalog, which is illustrated in the manner of the early 1900’s and has great information.

If you are fortunate to have a sunny south window, you are all set. Otherwise, you need to purchase a grow light. I recommend buying a long LED full spectrum grow light, which has the advantage of producing little heat so that you can place the light close to the plants.

When it comes to growing media you can use seed starting soil, which is more finely textured, but I use regular potting soil and it works fine. I do not like to buy soil with fertilizer already in it because I like to have more control over fertilizing my plants. However, it is getting a bit harder to find potting soil without fertilizer. If you want to keep expenses down you could try soil from outside, although it is much harder to work with and has poorer results. You have a lot of options in the type of containers in which you can plant your seeds. I like seedling flats/cell packs & trays because you can fit a lot of plants into them. Sometimes I buy new ones, but often I wash and reuse those I have gotten when buying small plants or leftover containers from last year. They should be washed well with soap and water and a small amount of bleach. You need to have a tray to hold the water underneath the flat.

You then fill your containers with soil and wet the soil so that it is drenched. After the soil has drained (the bottom of the soil should never be sitting in water) you are ready to plant your seeds.

What should you plant? Some plants are super easy to grow from seed and some are extremely difficult, but the seed companies don’t tell you that. A lot of plants such as impatiens and begonias are much, much easier to grow from cuttings.

For a home enthusiast, generally. annuals that are planted six weeks before the frost date, in mid-April, are a good bet. Marigolds are far and away the most enjoyable seeds to plant especially if you have children. They come up reliably in less than a week. Look through your seed catalogs and do some investigating – does the seed need light to germinate, or will it only germinate if it is covered? What temperature is best for the plants? You can jump start plants that like heat by having a heating pad below the containers.

If you are using seedling flats, plant two or three seeds for each cup (depending on the size of the seed and germination rate) You can place the light very close to the seeds and prop it up with bricks or other materials, even books, then move the light up as the plants grow.

Overwatering is the most common reason that seedlings don’t make it. I water from the bottom but later check to make sure there is no standing water touching the bottom of the cups.

As the plants grow, you may want to thin them by snipping one of the plants off at soil level. (This is recommended but I have a bit of a hard time doing this). As they grow you should transplant them into larger containers. As the weather warms in the middle of May take the plants out during the day and bring them in at night. Plant them in the garden after Memorial Day!

When to cut back perennials -- fall and spring

As we approach winter, the perennial (pun intended) question for gardeners is: should I cut back perennials or leave them to cut back in the spring? For most perennials, it is up to you—they can be cut back in the spring or fall. If plants look ratty, you may want to cut them back in the fall. (It is best to cut them all the way to the ground.) If plants are giving you some early winter interest or may have seed heads that can be food for birds, you can leave them. Another question is: do you want plants to seed themselves so that you have more volunteer plants next year or do you want to keep that in check by cutting off the seed heads or the plant to the ground? Another consideration is your schedule—the spring tends to be a very busy time for us gardeners, while the fall is much slower, so you may want to cut plants back in the fall when you have more time.

An exception is for plants with diseases—because of this summer’s excessive rain, a lot of plants have powdery mildew (white or grayish on top of the leaves) or brown spot fungus (looks like brown patches on the leaves and can turn a whole leaf brown and dead). This plant material should be cut to the ground and picked up and thrown in the garbage—you don’t want the fungus hanging on through the winter. I always dispose of the stems and leaves of my peonies in the garbage, since peonies are very susceptible to botrytis fungus. You want the ground around the peony to be clean of stems or leaves. Plants where the leaves grow close to the ground such as Hostas and Heuchera should be left until the spring.