Children thrive when they're raised in a clean environment, when they're well fed and allowed a good deal of outdoor exercise. Growing vegetable seeds in containers at your house requires the very same conditions. Most failures of seeds sown indoors can be traced back to failure to provide one or more of these simple requirements.
1. Sterilize recycled pots. Everyone who gardens saves plastic flats, pots and six-packs from store-bought plants to use for seed starting. Maybe you're recycling tin cans or plastic yogurt cups. Even if you wash the containers and they appear clean, microscopic fungal spores or residual virus cells may remain on the surfaces. For this reason it's important to sterilize your containers with a 10 percent bleach solution. First wash the containers in hot soapy water, then rinse and dip into the bleach solution and allow them to air dry before planting.
2. Buy sterile seedling media. The term media is used for soil-less blends roots can penetrate. Media is not soil because it is composed often of finely ground peat and perlite and other neutral materials. Bagged seed starting media is sterilized to be guaranteed free of diseases so there's nothing to stop the seedling's development. Media is also very lightweight and won't pack down, which guarantees very little resistance for the most fragile seedling to rise up to meet the sun. It also enables super fine root hairs to spread out and absorb moisture. This is one item that is well worth the money because it makes seed starting a real no-brainer. Seed starting media is impossible to over water, resists packing down and is the ideal density for emerging roots.
3. Use a clear plastic growing environment. The best way to keep conditions evenly moist after sowing is to use clear plastic enclosures. Boxes from the salad bar - those used to hold organic greens or to cover trays of lunch meat - are perfect miniature greenhouses. When your seed containers are kept beneath this cover, conditions are more humid, which is helpful in homes with a furnace. It keeps the region of your seed media, too, so it remains evenly moist with less watering required. Over-watering often results from efforts to rehydrate the surface when it's soggy deeper down where moisture related diseases gain a foothold. Whether covered with sandwich wrap or plastic bags, this enclosure is vital to your success. They also let you bring seedlings out to the patio for sunshine on warm days without risk of wind drying them out. As seedlings grow, open the lid longer and longer each day until they are old enough to transplant into potting soil or the garden.
4. Timely potting up. A tiny root zone is ideal for a young, slow-starting tomato, but in a few weeks it will need more room in order to supply adequate moisture and nutrition. You can't go from a small pot to a much larger one in a single step. Growers repot their bedding plants incrementally as they age. Pot your plants up from seed media or six packs into individual four inch size pots to grow a large root system until it's time to go outside.
Early potting is done with tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, which share very long growing seasons. Plants that are very fast growers such as squash, for example, sprouts and mature so quickly you'd be repotting every week or so. Squash, corn, melons and root crops can be started indoors, but it's not so efficient because need to be moved out into warm garden soil much sooner.
Starting your vegetables indoors is a great way to protect them from pests, late spring cold snaps or inclement weather until they grow beyond their vulnerability. Their fruits will be ready to eat that much sooner and many will continue to produce throughout the rest of the season until frost cuts them down.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.