Many people often ask whether it is worth while to start your vegetables from seeds or to just simply buy seedlings from your local nursery. I feel you should start your vegetables from seeds for several reasons. The first benefit is you can choose any variety that you would like and are not limited to the small selection a nursery may carry. Another benefit is you will have healthier seedlings that will be ready for transplant into your garden.
The first item you will need is a container to hold the soil for your seedlings. You can buy these items online or you can use items found around your house, such as a milk container, yogurt cup or even egg cartons. You must keep in mind whatever you use needs to have good drainage, as too much water in the bottom of your container may cause disease. If you are reusing containers from a previous year you must make sure to sterilize them as fungal diseases may still be present from previous years. To kill off a disease such as Fusarium, clean the container with a diluted solution of bleach.
The potting mix you use for your seedlings is extremely important. For best results you should use a soil-free seed starting mix. This will decrease the likelihood that a disease such as damping-off will effect your seedlings. Keep in mind you will have to fertilize your seedlings when they begin to grow their first true leaves, as most soil free starting mixes lack nutrients. Experienced gardeners may try starting their seedlings in mixes that include compost as well as worm castings. This helps provides nutrients to the seedlings. The compost will also hold the water better than a soil less mix, and decrease the need for frequent watering. Remember adding outside contaminants such as your own compost may introduce other soil organisms, and increase the likelihood of damping off. It is best to water your seedlings from the bottom of the try to reduce the occurrence of damping-off.
Seedlings require more light than the sun can provide. It is best if your seedlings receive between 12 and 14 hours of light a day after they germinate. While regular fluorescent bulbs do an adequate job of providing light, I feel you should use bulbs that are specifically designed for plants. They provide the best results, and it is important that your plants get off to a good strong start. Seedlings need light that is direct and intense. Therefore you must keep the light about three inches away from the tops of the plants. Many lights that you can buy online come with a chain that will easily adjust as the plants grow.
As previously mentioned, as the plants begin to grow, a gentle organic fertilizer should be applied. Regular fertilizers may burn the tender seedlings therefore it is best to use a mild organic fertilizer. Once your seedlings are more mature it is time to start hardening them off before you transplant them outdoors. We will look at hardening off plants in another article.