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Starting seeds? Do it right from get-go

Seedlings from last year under fluorescent shop lights Jessica Walliser

Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 8:41 p.m.

This is the first in a two-part series on starting your own seeds.

If there is one aspect of gardening that people shy away from for fear of “messing it up,” it's seed-starting. Maybe you think it's hard (it isn't), or expensive (not that either), or time-consuming (only if you want it to be). Starting your own seeds is one of the most thrilling experiments the garden has to offer.

The value of seed-starting goes well beyond the simple fun of it. It's incredibly economical: You can start dozens of cabbage plants from seed for the same price as buying a single four-pack of starter plants. It's entertaining: You can spend as many hours with your hands in the dirt as you want. And it broadens your horizons: You can grow a near-infinite variety of tomatoes, rather than just the two or three offered at your local nursery.

As with many new projects, tackling the setup might well be the most intimidating part of seed starting, but it shouldn't be. Compiled below is a list of “must-haves” for those about to undertake seed-starting for the first time.

(Experienced seed-starters should read on, too; you'll find a few gems of information here, as well.)

• 1. First, you'll need a light source. A sunny south-facing window will do, if that's all you have, but supplemental lights are ideal. You can purchase new or used shop lights (for around $12 each) and hang them on chains from the ceiling so they can be raised or lowered as the plants beneath them grow. There's no need for fancy, expensive grow-light bulbs, either. Cool fluorescent tubes will do just fine for seed-starting.

• 2. Secondly, hunt down some containers. If you're on a budget you can start your seeds in egg cartons, clamshell-type takeout containers, yogurt cups, topless milk jugs. As long as it holds soil and there is a drainage hole poked in the bottom, it will work.

• 3. Next, you'll need potting soil. Chose a sterile, commercial potting soil formulated specifically for seed-starting. Fine-textured peat or coir-based soilless mixes are best. And, never use garden soil to start seeds indoors — it's too dense, doesn't drain well, and may contain harmful organisms.

• 4. The next handy piece of equipment to have is a seedling heat mat. Though they can be a fairly expensive initial investment, costing $20 to $30 each, with proper care, they last for many years (I've had mine for 15). These flat, waterproof, electric mats are placed under newly seeded containers or trays and raise the soil temperature about 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature. For many seeds, warmer soil temperatures mean faster and better germination. They are of particular importance for starting warm-season plants like peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, annuals and certain perennials. The mat is only used until the seedlings have developed their first true leaves, then it is removed.

• 5. And, finally, you'll need labels — lest you forget what you planted where. Since it's hard to tell an “Early Girl” from a “Better Boy” when they are a mere 1 inch high, properly labeling each container is a must.

Now that you have all the proper equipment, there's but one more necessary ingredient: the seeds themselves.

In next Saturday's article, I'll discuss which seeds to start indoors and exactly how to do it.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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