What a leap of faith it is to start seeds in February. To wake up early on a February morning to feed the woodstove and note not that it’s 5F outside but that the sun is up even earlier today, is belief in tomorrow. To think that this bitter cold, snow covered morning is the day to start seeds may seem madness to some; the true believers know that spring really is just around the corner.
So, I prepare. I have a tall stainless steel shop shelving unit that I picked up at an auction years ago. It works well for seeds because the shelves are adjustable. I have most set about a foot apart which gives me enough room for the seed trays and to hang the shop lights above on a chain two inches above the plants. The shelves are not solid and are water resistant so water drips down to the level below. I use an old plastic toboggan as a water and soil catching tray on the floor under the bottom shelf. Each shelf is the width of a seed tray placed the short way. I set up two four-foot shop lights with reflectors side-by-side per shelf for two shelves. I have one shelf with no lights but with a bottom heat source. I use a rubber, heated floor mat for this then repurpose the mat in the shop to warm my feet in the late fall. This shelf is for germination which requires heat but not light. Finally, I have a taller shelf for potting up larger, tender plants that need to be kept warm until being set out after frost. I store a collection of pots and trays on top. This set-up allows me to start hundreds of seeds in only 10 square feet of floor space.
My favorite seed starting and potting mix is called BM1 a peat based mix from Canada. I soak the mix well with water in a pail to the consistency of chocolate pudding before adding it to trays and seeding. Then I don’t water again for about a week so as not to disturb the seed and burgeoning roots. I have trays in an assortment of sizes. I almost always start seeds at a very large density in a small six-pack size tray then transplant them to individual cell trays. the most common size I use are the 50 cell and 72 cell per tray sizes. Occasionally I transplant a second time to a 2″ or 4″ pot. I do this for plants I will sell as well as tomatoes who like to be transplanted and are kept indoors for longer than most.
What I plant is dependent on two things: the date I plan to plant outdoors (the cold-hardiness of the plant) and the time it takes to get to plant out size. This is generally speaking 4 weeks after germination for most plants. Germination time, however, can be quite variable from a couple of days to 3 weeks. More specifically, onions are the first seeds I plant, then hardy greens like lettuce and spinach, then parsley because it takes a long time to germinate, and cilantro because it thrives in the cold to name a few. Observe, take notes, and don’t expect to get everything right. This is an art form with nature as collaborator; learn to work with her.