The savvy gardener knows there are big advantages to starting vegetable seeds indoors during the late winter. With the right tools and knowledge, you can be well on your way to a bountiful harvest.
Winter may seem like the perfect time to hibernate, but it’s the ideal time for gardeners to think warm thoughts and start preparing for the warm season. By getting a jump on planning, seeding, nurturing and preparing your plants, you’ll reap a bountiful harvest.
Whenever you find yourself staring mournfully at your snow-filled yard, make that time count by designing this year’s garden space. For first-time gardeners, this will involve planning where the new garden will be and what will be grown.
Tyler Hagemann, owner of Hagemann Horticulture, in Oregon, Ill., recommends beginning with a list of the vegetables you want in your garden this year.
“Figure out how many types of vegetables and individual plants you want, and then you’ll know how big an area you’ll need,” says Hagemann.
If this is your first garden, take a long, hard look at your plan and make sure you’re not overdoing it. This, says Hagemann, is a common mistake for newbies because it’s easy to take on more more work than you can actually achieve.
“Start with some of the basic stuff,” he advises. “Green beans are a good choice. Radishes are really easy to do.”
Once that’s figured out, you’ll need to decide what type of garden to create. Do you want a raised garden, or would you rather plant directly in the ground? Would you rather use individual containers?
“A lot of people are switching over to using pots,” says Hagemann. This method is particularly popular with gardeners who have limited space, poor soil quality or pest management issues.
Another advantage to gardening in pots is that you don’t need to transplant, because a seedling can become a mature plant in the same pot. Just make sure the seedling has enough space.
“The size of the container is going to depend on the size of what you’re growing,” says Hagemann. “The most important thing is that the pot has drainage.”
One caveat with pots is that they require a bit more maintenance than an in-ground garden.
“If you go the pot route, you’re going to constantly have to water it and supplement fertilizer,” says Hagemann. “If you’re growing in the ground, you don’t have to worry as much about fertilizer, especially if you’re composting and adding organic material.”
Another important thing to remember is to use a soilless growing medium or potting mix.
“You can’t just use soil out of your garden or ground,” says Hagemann. “Pots are made to hold moisture, and regular soil holds too much moisture at one time. Without a soilless medium, your plants will get root rot.”
Prepare Your Germination Area
You may be surprised to hear you can get a head start on your garden in the warmth and comfort of your own home.
First, find a suitable area for your plants to grow. You’ll want plenty of space to lay out your seedlings, and lots of light for them to absorb.
Plant the seeds – which you can find at the area garden center – in an old flower tray. Seed starter kits typically come with a handy tray, as well. Whatever container you use, be sure it has holes for drainage.
Next, take stock of your lighting. If you don’t have an area of your home that receives direct sunlight, you might want to consider supplementing with artificial light.
“LED is all the new rage, but there are many poorly made products out there, so pay attention to what you’re buying,” says Hagemann. “If the light is under $30, it’s probably not very good.”
For germinating seeds, Hagemann recommends going the old-fashioned route, with a fluorescent tube.
“You can go to the hardware store and buy a grow light, which is a blue-spectrum light, and hang that over your plants,” says Hagemann. “Some people keep the light on for 24 hours, but I recommend keeping it on for 16 hours.”
Another important thing to consider, when starting indoors, is airflow. Hagemann recommends keeping a fan in the growing area.
“Air movement is one most important things,” he says. “These plants are striving to find light, so they can get lanky on you. If there’s no air flow moving them around, their stems are going to get spindly and weak. Having a fan on them is a really important thing.”
Timing is Everything
“If you’re planning to germinate your own seeds, you’re going to need to start at the right time,” says Hagemann. “Everything is a little bit different, so you need to do your research.”
If peppers are part of your garden, Hagemann recommends starting with those, since they have the longest germination window (two to three weeks). Tomatoes (which have a one-to-two-week germination) should be high on the list as well. The longer it takes for a seedling to poke through the soil, the earlier you should be planting.
As for transplanting the seedlings into your garden, Hagemann recommends having everything ready by Mother’s Day. That’s when the weather is the most suitable for planting.
“The biggest mistake people make is planting their seeds too early,” he says. “They think the bigger the plant is, the better it’s going to be, and the sooner they’re going to get those vegetables. These plants don’t want to be indoors for very long periods of time. They don’t get the full sunlight inside, and they don’t have the wind blowing them around to strengthen their stems.”
Another thing to consider is soil temperature. It may be tempting to start planting on the first nice day of the year, but chances are the soil is not yet at the temperature your plants need.
“People get too excited if we get a few nice days in a row,” says Hagemann. “But soil temperature is a really important factor.”
Hagemann recommends picking up a Farmers’ Almanac for additional guidance. “They’re one of the handiest things a gardener can have,” he says. “They tell you the day you should be sowing seeds and when you should be starting each plant. They talk about the moon phases, which come into play when it comes to planting your seeds. I refer to my Farmer’s Almanac, even to this day when I plant my garden.”
Know Your Cool Crops and Warm Crops
When the time comes to move your plants into the garden, it pays to know which ones love the heat and which ones can handle the cooler season.
“Your cold-season crops are things like Brussels sprouts, radishes or cauliflower,” says Hagemann. “You can also get potatoes and corn in early.”
These are the crops you should put in first. They’re also the plants that will fare better in the shadier parts of your garden.
“It all comes back to really studying what you’re planting and knowing soil temperature,” says Hagemann. “Look at the seed packet and make sure you know what soil temperature each plant needs.”
Complement with Compost
Plants need nutrients to thrive, and most of the nutrients they need come from the soil. If you’re planting an in-ground or raised-bed garden, compost should be your friend.
“Grass clippings, straw, shredded bark, fallen leaves … any organic material like that can be made into a compost heap,” says Hagemann. “It takes time, and you need to constantly add to it, but good organic material is totally going to help your garden.”
To get started, you’ll need a way to contain all of that yard waste and kitchen scraps. Many gardeners build their own compost bins from plans they found online, but it also works to drill holes in a plastic bin or barrel. Some gardeners even create an enclosure using chicken mesh and wooden stakes.
Make sure that, no matter how you design your bin, air can get in and move around. Excess rain or moisture can sour the compost or cause valuable nutrients to wash away.
Add to the pile all summer long, turning it over periodically. Then, in the fall, scoop it into your empty garden.
“I usually recommend adding 2 to 3 inches of compost on top, then covering it with plastic or landscaping fabric,” he says. “Covering it is going to prevent leaching, where all the good nutrients that you put in that garden wash out into the grass.”
Composting needs to be an ongoing thing. By keeping up your compost heap and liberally adding it to your garden, you’ll end up with a rich, loamy soil that’s easy for plant roots to set in.
“If you compost year after year, you’re adding tons of different types of microbes that add to your overall soil health,” says Hagemann. “Soil health leads to being able to have a consistently better garden, with fewer deficiencies. Soil health is absolutely crucial to having a good garden.”
Late fall and early winter are the best times to get your soil nutrient-rich and ready for planting.
“If you get that organic matter in early, those nutrients are going to be in the soil, ready and waiting for your plants,” says Hagemann. “Over the winter, all those worms and nightcrawlers are going to be actively feeding and breaking that matter into nutrients.”
Watch Your Water and pH Levels
One area where new gardeners tend to falter is watering. It’s tough to know whether you’re underwatering or overwatering your plants. It can be tricky to get it right, but Hagemann has a simple method to help.
“You can go online and buy a moisture probe,” he says. “They’re just a few bucks and they’ll tell you the moisture percentage of your soil.”
With a moisture probe in hand, you can monitor just how much moisture is in the soil and water accordingly.
“Plants really like to be between 40% and 70% moisture,” says Hagemann. “If you can keep your plants in that area and never let them get too dry or wet, your plants will be stronger and less susceptible to pests.”
Another tip is to place your thirstier plants, like beans, beets, carrots and cucumbers, in the part of the garden that’s closest to your hose spigot. That way, you don’t have to stretch your hose too far when watering.
Your soil’s pH level is also something that can be measured with an inexpensive probe. Most vegetable plants tend to thrive in soil that is slightly, but not too, acidic. Soil that is not acidic enough is called alkaline soil. Soils that are too acidic or too alkaline create problems by limiting essential nutrients.
“Make sure your soil is a pH between 6 and 7,” says Hagemann. “If it’s not within that area, you’re going to have micronutrient deficiencies.”
Don’t be Afraid to Try Something New
Whether you’re a longtime gardener or just starting to test your green thumb, winter is the perfect time to start planning your vegetable garden. If there’s any doubt, there’s plenty of help available at the local plant nursery, where designers and professional gardeners can offer guidance.
“We have tons of stuff to help first-time gardeners get started,” says Hagemann. “The most important thing is to try new things and keep learning as you go.”