For anyone looking to start a winter garden project, OSU Extension Unit has some tips for starting seeds indoors during the colder months.
Brenda S. Gandy-Jones, Extension Educator FCS-4-H, CED, said starting seeds indoors can be an enjoyable winter garden project.
"With gardening season slowing down into the winter months, many people with green thumbs are eager to get back outdoors and put a little dirt under their fingernails," Gandy-Jones said.
Gandy-Jones said after feeling the "urge to grow things,” she contacted Dr. David Hillock from the Oklahoma State University Extension consumer horticulturalists.
Gardeners can purchase seeds from a variety of sources. The local gardening store, through the mail and through online stores.
Through Gandy-Jones' conversation with Hillock, she said, "one advantage of buying seeds is gardeners will have a much greater variety to choose from compared to waiting until spring to buy starter plants."
According to Gandy-Jones and Hillock, those wanting to plant their indoor garden can pick up seeds for unusual hybrids at this time, which may prove more difficult to find as a plant during the spring.
For those wanting to know how much seed is enough, they recommend not buying more than what's needed for two to three years.
"The fresher the seed, the greater the chance the seeds are viable. Leftover seeds can be stored in an air-tight container in a cool place such as a refrigerator," Gandy-Jones said. "Keep the humidity low in the storage container, add a packet of silica gel. An alternative is a teaspoon of powdered milk in a piece of facial tissue or paper towel."
According to Gandy-Jones, it doesn't take a lot of equipment and tools to begin your planting season, all you need is seeds, good potting mix as well as cell flats with small, individual containers.
"Small, individual pots also are a good choice," Gandy-Jones said. "It’s better to use divided containers so each plant can contain its own root system."
To avoid injuring the plants when in the transplant process it's recommended to separate the seeds.
"Seedlings grown together in one large pot likely will be injured during the transplant process," Gandy-Jones said. "Seedlings such as cucumbers and squash don’t transplant well, so use fiber or paper pots that break down in the soil. When the seedling is ready to be planted, simply plant the pot."
According to Hillock, it's recommended to use a commercial seed-starting mix to grow seedlings.
"Those mixes are composed of vermiculite and peat – without any true soil – and they’re lightweight and free of weed seeds," Hillock said. "The texture of the mix is well-suited to the needs of germinating seeds and tiny seedlings."
The recommendation to follow the seed packet or other instructions is vital as there are different requirements for different seeds.
"Each species has its own requirements for seed depth, water and light," Gandy-Jones said. "Consider when the seedling will be ready for transplant and work backward on the calendar to determine when the seeds must be started."
It's important to identify and tag each of the containers or tray of seeds.
"Seedlings can be different species but still look alike," Gandy-Jones said. "So marking each tray will be a big help when it’s time to transplant them outside."
From seedlings to plants, educators provide tips on caring for the seeds.
"Once the seeds are planted, they need to be kept in an area where the temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit," Gandy-Jones said. "Avoid placing the seed flats on a windowsill."
Fluorescent lights are another technique used for indoor gardening.
According to Hillcock, "a more reliable method is to use fluorescent lights, which may be marketed as grow lights. This will help plants develop strong, sturdy stalks."
For an easier way to help plants get the required light they need — an average of 12 to 16 hours — a timer works best with a lighting system.
"The potting mix needs to be kept moist while seeds are germinating," Gandy-Jones said. "A spray bottle to water the surface on the plants without washing away any of the potting mix is a handy tool. This will help avoid overwatering and root rot. Seedlings also will benefit from a weak, general-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer mixed at one-quarter strength. Use that mixture once per week and use plain water as needed the rest of the week."
When seedlings grow they will need to be transplanted into larger containers.
"You can use larger peat pots or plastic cups with holes punched in the bottom for drainage,” Hillock said. “If you started the process with small peat cups, transplant those into your larger peat cups.”
According to Hillock, "as time draws near to get the seedlings in the ground, they need to go through a process called hardening off. They have been protected from direct sunlight and wind, two environmental factors that can be harsh on unprepared, young plants."
Plants that are brought outdoors during the day will need to be brought back indoors during the colder nights.
"A couple of weeks before planting, move them outside in the shade for a few hours each afternoon," Gandy-Jones said. "Bring them back indoors before the temperature drops at night. During the day leave the plants out for a little longer and expose them to a bit more direct sunshine. Unless there is a risk of abnormally cold weather, by the end of the two weeks the plants should be ready to stay outside in a sunny area until gardeners are ready to transplant them into the garden."
For those who enjoy videos to help begin the garden, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqOvtnV3Uv0 for a fresh look at those spring gardening tips about starting seeds indoors at a low cost.
For more information about growing vegetable transplants, visit the OSU Extension website, where a variety of topics are featured related to general gardening or contact Brenda Gandy-Jones, Extension Educator at the Stephens County OSU Extension Service on the Stephens County Fairgrounds, 2002 S. 13th Street, by emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 580-255-0510.