Starting seeds indoors for your vegetable or flower garden takes just a minimal amount of equipment and is a lot of fun. If you're a gardener who tends to get antsy in March, wondering if spring will ever arrive, I encourage you to try starting some seeds indoors. It's like having a miniature garden indoors, with a whole lot less weeding and work. We have an excellent fact sheet at our office with all the details about starting seeds indoors. Just call our office for a free copy or visit our local Web site at http://ecgardening.cce.cornell.edu and click on "fact sheets." We also have a fact sheet on how to build a simple stand out of PVC pipe to hold your growlights. Rather than go through all these details, today I'm going to point out some highlights and frequently asked questions. Lights
To grow good quality seedlings you really must invest in some lights, but they don't have to be fancy. A simple four foot fluorescent shop light fixture or two, each fitted with one cool white and one warm white bulb, is all you need. Many people have been discouraged with growing seedlings indoors because the plants become weak, floppy and spindly (we call this "leggy"). This is almost always due to the plants not getting enough light. Seedlings just don't get enough light on a sunny windowsill; the days are too short in late winter and the angle of the sun just doesn't provide enough intensity to produce stocky plants. Hang your light fixture from chains so you can adjust its height as the plants grow. You need to keep the fixture just four to six inches directly above the leaves. Use a timer so the lights will stay on for 14-16 hours per day. Location
Sometimes people say they don't have room to set up a growlight. Because the fixture will be providing all the light your plants need, you can set it up under a shelf or on a table in the corner of a room. If your basement is finished, you can even set them up there. I find it helps to locate it somewhere that you visit often so you can check on your plants regularly. The small containers may need water as often as every day or every couple of days. Temperature
Most plants need higher temperature to sprout than they do to grow. If your setup is in cool location, consider buying a thermostatically controlled heat mat designed for this purpose. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove them from the heat unless they are the real warm-lovers such as tomatoes. Growing medium
After the growlight fixture, the only other essential purchase you need to make is some quality growing medium. Notice I didn't say "potting soil." It's essential to have a light, well-drained mix and potting soil is much too heavy and dense. To avoid disease, always start with new material, don't reuse growing mix from last year's pots. I've had good luck using the standard peat-based potting mix I use for my houseplants and containers but some gardeners prefer the finer textured blend formulated specifically for starting seeds. Experiment with both if you like and see which type you prefer. Timing
My last tip is about timing. After the lights, the most common mistake is to start the seeds too early. You'll be amazed how quickly they grow once they get started. When in doubt, start your seeds later than you think. It's always better to transplant a smaller seedling than an overgrown one. Our seed starting fact sheet includes information on timing for specific plants.