I’m a native of California, so when I moved to Colorado and began gardening in this beautiful, four-season climate, at the end of my first season, to say I was sad is an understatement. Hadn’t it just started?
My first and biggest mistake was to assume that if I followed the growing guidelines on the back of my seed packets, I would have optimum yields. I failed to recognize that seed packets are simply not written for individual zones. So while it was technically acceptable for me to start my tomato seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost, transplanting 8-inch tall seedlings on June 1st and expecting them to grow, mature, flower, set fruit, and have the fruit ripen in 3 months was delusional.
Once September hit, we already had frosts in the forecast. So there I was, picking all of my green (and small) tomatoes off my plants, and bringing them inside to (hopefully) ripen them in a cardboard box with newspaper. (This isn’t nearly as satisfying for the gardener as it may sound.)
Months later (December 29th, to be exact), I took the bull by the horns and started my tomatoes and peppers inside – a full 6 months before they were to be transplanted outside. This was the best thing I ever did for my garden, and myself.
So how do I do it? Following are 6 very simple steps to starting your own garden, from seed, inside, in winter!
In December or January (no later than early February), I begin by setting up my grow space in a large, south-facing window. The first step in preparing my grow space is making the epic journey, through the snow, to my shed outside, to gather supplies, which includes my grow racks, small (2”x 2”) seed starting pots, plant markers, and my handy dandy spray bottle.
Inside, I tape a double layer of plastic to the floor to protect it (it’s going to get messy in here), then assemble my grow racks on top. They won’t be holding pots for a while, but will instead hold my supplies, give me additional work space, and when the seedlings are ready for big pots, they’ll be ready for action.
Next, I get my planting medium ready. What’s a planting medium, you ask? It’s whatever you choose to grow in – be it potting soil, rehydrated coir, organic soil, sterile soil, etc. My planting medium is one part sterile soil, one part rehydrated coir, and a handful of vermiculite. I put all of this in a big, storage tub with a lid, and mix it up with my hands (and arms). (This might just be my favorite part of the process.)
I take a large bowl or a bucket, and fill it about three-quarters full of the soil mixture, water the soil, and mix thoroughly. I pre-water my soil so that once I add my seeds, I won’t need to disturb them by pouring water over them.
I take my tiny seed starting pots, and fill them with my pre-watered soil mixture. Ever so slightly, I press the soil down with the back of my fingers, mainly so that I know it’s full and there are no big soil-less pockets. Do not press hard!
Drum roll, please! Finally ... I add 3 seeds (of the same variety) in a triangular placement on top of the soil. The rule of thumb for the depth in which to plant your seeds is ... as deep as their size. This means, tiny seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and basil need only be placed on top of the soil, and then a sprinkling of soil goes on top, only to ensure they are in full contact with the soil on all sides.
Once you’ve placed your seeds on top of the soil, and sprinkled a bit of soil on top of the seeds, again, press the soil ever so slightly, again, only to ensure full contact between seeds and soil.
Don’t forget to mark your pots! Just like when our kids are little, we think we’ll never forget this moment. Trust me, in about 5 minutes, you won’t be able to tell one pot from the next. Label them as you go, or better yet, before you even put seeds in them.
Once my seeds are in, I place my tiny pots in a seed starting (humidity) dome. It keeps the seedlings warm, keeps the moisture level consistent, and prevents the soil from drying out too quickly. It also has a light, but seeds don’t need light to germinate. However, once they germinate, then they’re seedlings, and seedlings must have light to grow. (And no, the light from the south-facing is not enough.)
In my experience, this protective little dome speeds up germination. However, each type of seed is going to germinate at a different rate. Using this dome, I usually see the first signs of germination of tomatoes and peppers in about 4 days. Which, of course, is the happiest day of the year (so far) for us gardener types.
Before your seeds have germinated, I do not recommend pouring water in the pots. Again, you will be disturbing the seeds, and they may lose contact with soil. Instead, I use a spray bottle. About every other day, I spray the top of the soil (and because I’m weird, I give each pot exactly 12 sprays – I don’t know why, it’s just what I’ve always done, and it works for me).
Once your seeds germinate and your seedlings are at least a few inches tall, then you can begin watering them by pouring the water in the pots. But be very careful – they are very delicate in this stage.
And DO NOT over-water. This can lead to dampening off, which is basically cutting off their oxygen supply, and will kill them. Instead, poke your finger into the soil to check for moisture. If the soil is bone dry, give them some water (and maybe check on them more often). If the soil is moist, hold off on watering, and check again the next day. In fact, letting the soil dry out a bit in between waterings will force the roots to go deeper and wider in search of water (making them stronger), and will also reduce the risk of the soil developing surface mold and other diseases.
Once your plants have their second set of true leaves, they’re going to need to be fed. (They DO NOT need to be fed as seeds or newly germinated seeds.) However, young seedlings can’t handle full doses of fertilizer, so I recommend diluting it or cutting it in half. Look for an organic fertilizer that’s right for your type of plant, and feed them about once a week. (And remember, any plant held captive in a pot needs to be fed. It has no way of searching out nutrients in surrounding soil, so it needs your help!)
Plants such as tomatoes and peppers benefit greatly from pruning. And frankly, so will your grow room/space, because after a couple of months, your plants are going to be getting mighty big.
So ... once the main stem is at least as thick as a pencil, and the plant is about 10 inches tall, it’s time to start thinking about pruning. I recommend snipping off the grow tip at this point, which means cutting just above the juncture at the third or fourth set of leaves. This will force side shoots to grow out horizontally, and your plants will be stronger and better prepared for outside life when the time comes. (The rule of thumb for tomatoes and peppers is, you want them wide and strong as opposed to tall and gangly.)
You can count on needing to prune them about every other week until it’s time to transplant them into your outdoor garden.
If you start your tomato and pepper seeds inside as early as I do, and assuming things go well, you can bet at least some of the plants will be flowering weeks before you put them outside. In fact, I consistently have tons of fruit on the plants before I ever set them out as well!
And no, I don’t have bees in my house. On a small scale like this, you can hand-pollinate your flowers! (Just take care not to cross-pollinate.) You can either use your finger to go from one flower to another, or you can gently shake the plant. (Gently, I say!) Do one of these things every day, and I can all but guarantee you will have tomatoes and peppers on your plants, inside your house, before a bee ever lays eyes on them. How cool is that?!
So, start your seeds today! You’ll be glad you did, I promise! It truly is something special to watch a single, tiny seed come to life and grow, and then to know those tomatoes in your salad came from that single, tiny seed. It truly is a miracle.
Happy Gardening, Everyone!
Karen is a wife, mother, business owner, gardener, canner, and the owner of “Love Your Land.”
Karen understands that gardening in Northern Colorado is seemingly a fleeting moment in time, so join her on Facebook for daily tips, tricks, and discussions, and on Love your Land You Tube for weekly how-to videos on how to extend a 3-month grow season into a 9-month grow season!