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A step-by-step guide to starting seeds indoors (and where to buy them online)

Gardening season is just around the corner. Here’s how to get a head start without leaving your house.

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In the depths of winter, curling up with a mug of tea and diving into seed catalogues is one of the most optimistic ways to spend a cold, dark evening. It’s also a great way to save money — come gardening season, you won’t have to buy new, already bloomed flowers and it’s a good way to plan your garden ahead of time. Generally, flowers and veggies should be started indoors six weeks before you plant them outside, after the last frost in your province. Here’s how to get started:

Step 1: Buy some seeds

Here are a few of my favourite sources for flower seeds. I have used these companies for years. They all have online catalogues, interesting selection, high quality seeds, good customer service and ship to Canada:

• William Dam
• West Coast Seeds
• Veseys
• Stokes

Step 2: Invest in some supplies

Although it is tempting to start seeds on a window sill, if you want your seedlings to really thrive it is far better to invest in a grow light. This will allow them to get the full 16-18 hours of direct light a day that they need, so they won’t get leggy stretching for the sun. Look for a fluorescent shop light from the hardware store and use either one cold and one warm bulb or two full-spectrum grow light bulbs. Hang it somewhere so that you can either raise the light or lower the seed trays to maintain a distance of a few centimetres between the light and the top of the seedling. I also recommend a 72-cell starting tray with a clear lid — it’s a nice size for most seeds.

Step 3: Plant your seeds

The timing of your seed starting is important. It can be tempting to jump the gun and plant the seeds early, but this will likely mean they will get root bound before the weather is warm enough for them to be planted outside. Once root bound, many varieties will be stunted for life. Most seeds should be planted six to eight weeks before being planted outside after the last frost-free date. It should say specifically on your seed package. The longer the seed takes to germinate, the earlier it needs to be sown. Use a moistened toothpick tip to pick up tiny seeds for planting. Moisten the soil before putting it in the cell packs — don’t pack the soil in, but do let it settle so there are no air pockets. Try dropping the filled tray onto your worktable from a height of 15 cm or so to let the soil settle, then top each cell off again. Remember to plant more seeds than you need in case your germination rate isn’t good.

Seeding indoors

Step 4: Label your cell packs

Use masking tape to label the varieties you’ve planted, so you know what you’re working with come spring.

Step 5: Care for them 

Water with a spray bottle at first so as not to wash away small seeds. Don’t over-water but don’t let them dry out; the soil should be damp, but not soaking. Different varieties require different temperatures to germinate, so check your seed package. If you have fluorescent lights and a lid on your tray, the seeds will get pretty warm— which they often like. An automatic timer will help make sure they get 18 hours of light a day. Take the lid off when 50 percent of your seeds have germinated.

Step 6: Plant them outside

After the last frost, it’s time to bring your germinated seeds outdoors and put them in the ground. Happy planting!

Sarah Nixon is an urban flower farmer and designer in Toronto. For 12 years her flower company, My Luscious Backyard, has sustainably grown over 100 varieties of cut flowers in a micro-farm comprised of many residential yards in Toronto’s west end. Throughout the growing season My Luscious Backyard creates florals for weddings and events, delivers arrangements to flower subscription recipients across the city and provides flowers to several discerning florists.

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