Garden Spot

Garden Spot: Get a jump on spring by starting seeds indoors

CorrespondentJanuary 25, 2013 

  • Learn more For more tips about starting seeds and vegetable gardens, visit the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service at

Don’t put your gardening tools away because the ground is hard and cold. Some gardeners get a head start on the spring growing season by tending seedlings inside – in sunrooms and even garages.

The main reasons gardeners start plants from seeds are cost and variety. Seeds are less expensive than plants. Buy a packet of seeds; save what you don’t use this growing season for planting later. Also, some plants might not be available locally when you want them, but you can buy the seeds at your garden center or order them from seed companies.

Daryl Woodman, 41, a scientist who lives in Morrisville, has gardened about eight years. He starts seeds in his garage in the winter because he’s impatient. “It’s like willing spring to arrive,” he says. If he’s gardening, even inside, it seems more like spring.

For Woodman, who grows tomatoes and peppers, the process also satisfies the scientist in him. He enjoys getting the conditions right and seeing a tiny seed grow into a viable plant and, he says, coming up with a system “satisfies the engineering side of my brain.”

Ginger Zucchino, 60, of Cary grew up in a gardening family in western North Carolina. Her father had a little greenhouse, and she learned about propagation and starting seeds at an early age. Zucchino strives to be self-sufficient and to grow as much of her own food as possible. She teaches others to do the same through her business, The Gardener’s Kitchen.

Woodman and Zucchino start with the basics – warmth, light, water and attention – but the equipment they use is just a little different. Both use heating pads to provide the warmth seeds need to germinate, or sprout. Zucchino uses a smaller personal-size one; Woodman uses a larger size that he gets from a pet-supply store.

Woodman grows the plants on a tall, chrome cart with shelves to which he attaches his grow lights. He uses plant/aquarium light fluorescent bulbs to simulate sunlight, and the lights are put on a timer set for about 10 hours of light a day.

He places a plastic tray that’s bigger than the heating pad on a shelf, puts the heating pad inside the tray, puts sand on top of the heating pad to even out the temperature and puts peat pots containing starter soil and seeds on top of the sand.

Zucchino turns her sunroom into a greenhouse. The room, which has skylights, faces south, so it gets good sun in winter. The plants don’t usually need bottom heat, but if necessary, she uses the heating pad with a layer of plastic between it and the flat containing a 72-cell pack.

The gardeners start their seeds from late January to March, depending on which vegetables they plant and how long it will take the plants to grow big enough for transplanting outside.

“Tomato seeds need to be sown six weeks before they will be planted out,” Zucchino says. So she plants the seeds in late January to early February, and sets the plants outside in mid- to late April.

Woodman and Zucchino have been doing this for years. If you’re interested in getting a head start on spring, here are some tips from them:

Start small: Often when we’re excited about something new, we overdo it. (That’s why I have beaucoup skeins of yard under my bed.) Once the seeds germinate (a week to 10 days), the seedlings have to be tended, so don’t plant more than you can handle.

For starters, Zucchino recommends growing a couple of vegetables you love. If you can handle that, you can add more next year.

Fancy equipment isn’t necessary: Zucchino grows eggplant in a “mini-greenhouse” she fashions from a clear plastic, three-piece egg carton.

The flat piece becomes a bottom tray. She pokes holes in the bottom of one egg-shaped piece and adds growing medium and seeds to this piece. Then she covers it with the other egg-shaped piece and sets it in the tray.

“The egg cartons are a simple, easy and cost-effective way for a beginning gardener to learn to grow their own transplants,” she says.

You can also buy seed-starting kits from seed companies. As for the dirt. Don’t just scoop up earth from your outdoor garden. It might have weeds or bacteria. Zucchino uses a seed-growing medium that is not soil-based. It contains inert and sterile natural materials, including peat moss for moisture retention, perlite for drainage, and vermiculite, which has no nutrient value. A colleague at my office uses Miracle Gro potting soil.

Water wisely: New gardeners worry so much about watering enough that they often over-water. The soil should be just moist to the touch. You don’t want your seeds or plants sitting in water.

Transplanting tips: Once your plant has filled the space in your pot, you’ll need to either move up to a bigger pot or, weather permitting, plant it outside. As for planting outside, don’t abruptly move seedlings that you’ve been pampering indoors into that cold, cruel world. You’ll need to take it through a “hardening off” process to slowly acclimate it to its new environment.

Take your plants outside during the day and put them in filtered sunlight. Take them back inside at night. Gradually, leave the plants outside longer and longer.


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