Starting Your Spring Garden Indoors
By Don Trotter 


 Hello fellow Earthlings and welcome to our first winter together in the new millennium. The first spring is on the way, and no matter how dreary it may be outside while you're reading this column today, chances are the weather will be getting warmer soon. Then it will be time for planting. Our discussion this time will be on getting a headstart on spring so our gardens are blooming and producing food when others are still in early-growth stages. So let's take a look at some of the choices we can make in order to get that head- start on an amazing and prolific spring gardening season.

 Starting seeds indoors can be a fun and enjoyable project for the whole family and a very good way to get your kids interested in the garden as well. Children are fascinated by the metamorphosis of seeds to plants, and young plants grow fast enough to keep them interested and constantly checking to see how the plants are progressing. This interest will continue once the weather warms up and the garden moves outside. The first tomato or head of lettuce from this garden will give them a new outlook on where food really comes from, instead of believing it comes from the grocery store. 

Only a few materials are needed for sprouting seeds successfully. Some lightweight potting soil, small containers, seed, water, and a light source is all you need. One of my favorite containers for sprouting seeds is an empty egg carton. You get twelve perfect size little cups for early root development and plants are very easy to pop right out of the individual cups and into larger pots for further growth or directly into garden soil once it warms up. 

There are other household things like yogurt cups and cottage cheese or sour cream containers that can serve as great containers for growing plants as well. No need to go out and buy a bunch of pots if you use your imagination. It is also a great way to show your kids about recycling. A piece of masking tape and a permanent marker can serve as a label so you know what you're growing.

 Seeds can be sprouted successfully in artificial light, and many gardeners put plants on a shelf or counter with a florescent light about twelve to eighteen inches above the plants, keeping light on them for about ten to twelve hours a day. There are lots of really inexpensive household timers used on things like coffee makers that can work for lighting so you don't have to remember. The old sunny window is still the best place to sprout seeds and most houses have a south-facing window that will work fine for seed sprouting. 

Watering is the most critical part of seed sprouting and can be the difference between a lush crop of vigorous plants and a wilted or rotted mess. Providing water to your sprouts should be done when the soil feels dry to the back of your hand or finger. Poke some drainage holes in the bottom of any container you use for growing so you don't overwater and provide a tray so the water doesn't spill all over the place. 

Soil for your seed-sprouting project should be a very lightweight mixture. Several potting soil manufacturers actually make seed sprouting mixes. Many of them are quite good. I like to mix my own by blending up equal parts of peat moss and vermiculite. This soil mix is light and it holds water very well so you don't have to check the moisture in your soil as often. 

Feeding of young plants should be done with weak fertilizers. I really like a weak compost tea mixed with very dilute kelp extract. Compost tea is made the same way as tea you drink. It doesn't taste very good so I would refrain from imbibing. A tea bag for compost tea can be made of cheesecloth or an old nylon stocking. Put about a quarter of a cup of compost into the bag and steep it in a gallon bucket of water in the sun for a day. Kelp extracts are widely available at most garden centers and I use it at one-third of the dilution strength recommended on the container. This mixture provides all of the nutrients your developing plants could want, has no smell, and it won't burn tender plants like many chemical fertilizers can. 

When the soil warms up outside and the weather is mild, it is time to set your plants into the garden and you will have a huge headstart on the spring growing season. This is a fun project for gardeners in northern climates where the garden seems miles away in winter. But those of you in milder climates can also benefit from sprouting your own seeds by saving money on expensive transplants often produced in nurseries that are heavy users of toxic chemicals. 

Seeds are available at most nurseries and garden centers. Some grocery stores also carry seeds for the garden. If you would like a listing of seeds that are produced by natural organic seed producers, give me a ring and I'll send you a list. Next time we will be discussing winter care of your fruit trees. See you in the garden!

 Got questions? Fax the Doc at (760) 632-8175 or e-mail him at  Don Trotter's Natural Gardening columns appear nationally in environmentally-sensitive publications. Look for his books "Natural Gardening A-Z" on sale now, and "The Complete Natural Gardener" coming soon from Hay House available at bookstores and at all online booksellers. Check out his columns in Hearst's Healthy Living Magazine coming in the March 2000 issue.

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