Updated: Feb 7
Whether starting a garden on a budget or hoping to follow the progression of plant life from beginning to end, growing seeds indoors before the last frost of winter can expand the field of possibilities for gardening.
Germinating seeds inside will keep them safe from freezing temperatures, hungry critters, and other challenges before the weather becomes more ideal in spring. Some plants however might prefer starting to grow outdoors after the temperatures rise and days are long enough. Hollyhocks and snapdragons for example take several months to reach maturity and begin flowering, whereas sunflowers and sweet alyssum grow better if sown directly in the garden outside after the last frost.
Seeds (read packets for instructions by region)
Dirt (seed-starting or potting mix)
Pans for watering underneath
Labels (popsicle sticks and pen)
Grow lights (with timers)
Optional: heating pads
Where I live, the average date for the last frost is April 13 (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a), so early February is the time to plant the first seeds of the season eight to ten weeks in advance. Most plants will grow fine if sown outdoors after that date, but some benefit from a little extra time to get established. Consider what plants you would like to grow and what grows best in your climate, especially native species and pollinators.
Tips for growing plants from seed
Be sparing with seeds, only one or two per module
Barely cover with soil
Always include a label
Harden off over a week before planting outside
Prepare a garden bed in advance with dirt, compost, and mulch
Different gardeners have their preferences when it comes to soil, but seedlings need loose dirt for their delicate roots to spread. General potting mix usually works just fine. Seed-starting trays come in a variety of designs and materials, like reusable plastic or biodegradable peat pots. Think of every seed as a potential plant, and avoid planting more than one or two per module. Press smaller seeds into the dirt and barely cover with soil, if at all, to allow the light to reach them.
Water from underneath by placing the seed trays in pans to avoid splashing out the seeds or saturating the soil too much, which can lead to the plants damping off and dying. Seedlings that rely on sunlight from windows tend to become leggy and struggle to recover as they mature. Hovering grow lights just a few inches above will help produce short and stocky plants.
Always include a label of some kind with each group of seedlings to avoid misidentification or forgetting which is which. A week or so before planting in the garden, harden off baby plants by leaving them outside for a few hours each day if weather allows.
This spring will be my first at Mallow Rose Cottage, which has over a century of gardening history around it. So named for its prominent hibiscus hedges, the rest of the lawn currently has a blank canvas of turf except for a pear tree and a black cherry tree. Once it was an Appalachian woodland, and I envision rewilding this patch of land near the heart of Asheville (Togiyasdi, ancestral lands of the Cherokee people) for the benefit of the wider community.
In order to wake up certain seeds from their dormancy, a simple do-it-yourself process known as cold stratification helps to mimic the natural processes of late winter. Scatter a few seeds on a wet paper towel, fold the paper towel in half, and place it in a plastic bag; then, keep the bag inside the refrigerator undisturbed for a week or two before planting in seed trays.
Be sure to label each bag with the date and the type of plant. Check every day to see when they sprout, and transplant as soon as possible into seed trays until the weather warms up enough outside to move them into the garden.
Best of luck!
Late winter can be the cruelest part of the year. By noticing small details in the garden like early bulbs and flower buds, while germinating seedlings inside, cultivates hope in the arrival of spring and propagates dreams into reality.