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Wintertime gardening: sowing seeds and satisfaction

A friend of mine once got the urge to start gardening while deep snow still blanketed the Maine countryside. So he dug out a packet of tomato seeds and sowed a flat or two. It was early February. At the time he was living in a cottage which boasted a couple of large south-facing windows that admitted all the sun and warmth the plants could ever need. They relished the situation. By mid-April, with six weeks of frost-threatening temperatures still ahead, the tiny home was almost overwhelmed by the vines.

The experience points out several lessons, including the need for gardeners, Northerners in particular, to guard against unrestrained enthusiasm. But more importantly it underscores the fact that starting seeds indoors is relatively simple, given enough warmth and light.

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It's within the grasp of everyone. If you lack a good sunny window, a pair of flourescent lights strung over a table or bench will do the trick.

For several years I grew all of my seedlings under lights in a windowless corner of the cellar.

But why bother sowing seeds indoors when started plants are readily available from nurseries? There are several very good reasons:

1. More choices. While nurseries and garden centers offer a whole range of started plants they grow only the more popular varieties. By starting your own, any variety in that annual extravaganza called the seed catalog can make it into your garden, including novelty items and heirloom varieties.

For example, miniature vegetables - the cabbage or cauliflower served whole at the table - are currently the ``in'' thing at many gourmet restaurants. But if you want to grow your own you will have to start them from seed (look for the adjectives, ``tiny,'' ``midget,''and ``miniature'' in catalog descriptions) because the demand isn't yet big enough to prompt nurseries into producing them for home gardeners.

2. Timing options. If you plan an extra early start to the season by growing plants under cloches (bell-shaped glass jars), poly tunnels, or other protective devices, you will have to start your own as store- bought plants will seldom be available in time. Similarly, few nurseries raise seedlings for the late planting needed for a fall harvest.

3. Inexpensive. Once you have bought any needed start-up equipment - lights, soil-heaters (if the room is cool), trays, etc., you will be able to produce, for pennies, plants that usually cost dollars at a garden center.

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3. Satisfaction. Nothing speeds winter on its way more quickly than the special pleasure derived from watching seeds germinate and develop into sturdy young plants.

To grow your own seedlings you will need a light, fluffy growing medium (soil or artificial soil), some containers, and seeds.

Lacking a sunny window in a warm room you will also need lights and possibly soil-heating cables, or a small thermostatically controlled space heater. (I covered my cellar-grown seedlings with a tentlike structure of clear plastic. Inside was a small space heater set for 75 degrees F. which I turned off at night to allow temperatures to fall below 70 degrees F. Most growing plants prefer cooler night temperatures.)

Growing medium: The ideal medium can store moisture, yet is light enough to drain well and let air enter. It also must not crust over - form a hard layer on the surface that can stop tiny seedlings from emerging. Most commercially available mixes, specially formulated for starting seeds, meet all these needs. They are also sterile, which means they are free of the fungus that can cause ``damping off,'' an occurence where newly emerged seedlings wilt and fall over.

As a compromise, I have often used my own sandy garden soil at the bottom of the container and topped this with about 1/2 an inch of the commercial medium. So far this has worked well every time.

Containers: Any recycled container deeper than 2 inches will make an acceptable flat.

For individual containers you can use styrofoam cups. Just be sure that all have drainage holes punched in the bottom. Or you can use peat pots or pellets (compressed peat that expands into a growing block when soaked in water). Still another option is to make your own soil blocks using a hand press, which is designed for that purpose.

Seeds: Packets of seeds are available from garden centers and hardware stores, but the widest choices are displayed in the catalogs of mail-order seed houses. Make certain that the medium is thoroughly dampened before sowing.

Fill the container with the starter medium and firm it into place. Be sure to have the rim stick up at least 1/4 inch above the soil so that it can hold water.

A general rule of thumb is to sow the seed about twice as deep as it is thick. In handling very fine seeds take a tooth pick and wet one end. Use the wet end to pick up a seed and transfer it to the planting medium.

Put the container in a plastic bag which holds in the moisture and heat and place in a warm area. A good place is on the racks above the kitchen stove or in the basement near the furnace. Most seeds germninate well in soil temperatures above 70 degrees F. As soon as a few of the seeds have germinated, move the plants into the light.

Today there are a number of mini greenhouses (planting trays with a clear roof-like cover) that are designed to fit on windowsills and make seedling raising a breeze. One of the newer models even has a heating pad built into it.

Water young seedlings with a very fine spray or from the bottom up. My preferred way is to sit the containers in a tray filled partially with water for about 20 minutes or until I feel they have absorbed all the water they can. After removing them from the tray, the excess water slowly drains away.

Remember, as plants grow they will require more frequent waterings.

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