Spring is around the corner, and it's time to get some seeds going! The sight of rows upon rows of seed packets in the supermarket speaks to my spirit and beckons me closer. The packages are enticing, but I have learned over the years to buy only that which I absolutely WILL plant.
Stockpiling excessive amounts of seed packets is not really a good idea; seeds have perishable rates according to how well they have been stored. Even the best-kept seeds have a gradually diminishing shelf life.
By the way, if you are planning to plant vegetables in a small home garden, don't get your seeds in lean, glossy packages at the department store. Go to a farm and garden supply store or a hardware store and buy vegetable seeds by the pound. Some places have dipping bins and plain bags for weighing and pricing the amount you want. It is much cheaper per ounce/pound that way.
Even though I just talked about diminishing shelf life, the seeds I buy by the pound at the hardware store DO give me germination success over the next year or two; often, that is my only choice of seed when it's time to plant vegetables, so I use them. And it works, at least for a little while. Fresh seed is best, but do not throw out old seed. It might be viable.
Plant last year's seeds a little closer together to compensate for the possibility that the germination rate on the package has weakened over time. You can always thin your seedlings if that has not been the case. Lucky you!
My absolute favorite! Jiffy peat pellets are flat like cookies for purchasing but swell in size just by being placed in a pan of shallow water. I have been buying Jiffy peat pellets for about fifteen years. They come with plastic trays and/or kits of various sizes according to your gardening needs.
After trying the tray kits, I now buy only the refill box of loose Jiffy pellets as shown here. I place my jiffies in cake pans, add a little water, and watch them grow. They reconstitute in stages. You don't want to dunk them in over their tops. Just add a little bit of water a few times over a half-hour to get them nice and plumped up.
These peat pellets hold their shape via a gauze wrapping that covers the sides and bottom. I have learned to buy only Jiffy brand if I want a guarantee that my pellets WILL have a gauze bottom. The knock-off brands try to cut corners by only wrapping gauze around the middle of the pellets, which is ridiculous—the peat comes out from the bottom and makes a mess. Stick with Jiffy.
Once my pellets are rehydrated, I flatten the hole in the top of the peat with my fingers or a pencil eraser and then poke a new, smaller hole with the point of that pencil. One large seed is enough per pellet; several small seeds are appropriate for plants with tiny seed. One of my favorite things to do is to carefully place tiny cactus seeds right on top of the flattened, moist peat using a wet pencil point for lifting and placing. Then it is on to the sunny window or to a warm place for germination.
Seedlings started in Jiffy pellets or in any other way need either light or heat in addition to moisture in order to come to life (germinate). This is important to know and should be on the seed package, but if in doubt, do a Google search on your particular seeds.
The ideal light is natural outdoor light, but we must wait for that if we are growing seedlings in late winter or early spring. Some folks have greenhouses, large or small. Some even have cold frames. I have neither, but I have my big windowsills in the house.
For germination by heat only, I have had success using the tried-and-true method of placing pots or flats of seeds in soil on top of the refrigerator where the gentle heat that rises from the back and top surface is just enough to get germination going.
I have also been known to place my plants (carefully!) on my flat electric stovetop after it has cooled to the touch. Be very careful if you do this. Some heat is good; too much heat will kill. Some folks use tube lighting (electric strung lights encased in plastic of various lengths) buried in soil-filled plastic bins. I have not tried this for germination, but the idea fascinates me.
After germination, the little seedlings need light quickly so that they can photosynthesize and grow. Here is where the sunny window fits in.
Windowsill gardening is best done in a southern window, where the sun shines for the hottest and longest part of the day. Even then, you will need to turn your plants occasionally so that they grow evenly. If temperatures are still rather chilly, be careful that your plants do not get cold and full of mildew. This will happen to cold, damp soil. I would recommend only leaving the little pots on the sill during the daytime. At nighttime, get them away from the window and into a warmer place. This is a time to be very watchful since you are taking advantage of the natural light and warmth of sun in a window before spring arrives. You may want to consider alternative lighting to help the growth process along.
One of the easiest ways to supplement natural light is to employ the use of a fluorescent light fixture with fluorescent tubes. This need not be expensive at all. Oh, it CAN be—if you order a fancy set-up from the back of a seed catalog, but all anyone needs is a 48" fluorescent shop light suspended in some way above a row of seedings. The cheapest shop light will be absolutely perfect. Better yet, see if there is one lying around in the attic or garage and put it to use as a poor man's grow light.
Although they can be set up to hang and come with chains for that purpose, I use a 48" double-light fluorescent fixture that rests on an empty fish aquarium. The plants inside the aquarium start out close to the top where the light is and then are lowered as they grow by using removable wooden blocks.
Your little plants in jiffies, alas, cannot stay in those damp little peat pellets for long. They grow rapidly and will soon need to be potted up in something else before they head outside to be hardened off for the garden. One idea is to place them in small plastic pots that are a bit larger than the Jiffy pellets they germinated in.
I have found that it is MUCH less expensive to buy small plastic pots in large quantities on Ebay and often search for gardening supplies online with that wisdom in mind.
A few years ago, I bought this box of 100 plastic pots from an Ebay seller because when I did the math, (including shipping charges), each pot cost me just a few pennies. If I had purchased them from a department store, they would have been at least $1.00 each.
Moreover, I am a big fan of re-purposing things. Clean out your pudding or yogurt cups (or similar disposable plastic) and use them if the budget is tight. Always put a drainage hole in the bottom of any plastic container to be re-purposed for plants. Always.
If it seems that implementing these ideas would be time-consuming, that is true. I think that any endeavor which seeks to save money does involve a bit of a time commitment. The first steps are always the most difficult, but human nature being what it is, we soon adapt to the routine of caring for the things in which we have invested our interest. It quickly becomes a pleasure rather than a chore as we reap the benefits of our thoughtful, money-saving plans.