By the end of the year I'm starting to get pretty excited about another seed-starting season, and, being someone who likes to be organized, I start thinking about some of the things I want to do to get prepared ahead of time. Although there's still a ton of snow on the ground, I can't help but start imagining next summers garden, all lush, beautiful and productive. What it will feel like to be able to walk around barefoot in a summer dress (and yes, I have gardening dresses!) while nurturing my beautiful garden into fruition. Lovely dreams, certainly, but before any of that happens, there are some practical action steps to make that happen, starting with preparations for starting some of my seeds indoors.
Getting organized is one of the most satisfying tasks for me, as it involves making sure I have my seed starting space set up in a way that allows me to jump right in as soon as I'm ready to start. It might seem too early to start thinking about this in mid-December, but believe me, the last thing you want to happen is to have to run out to purchase stuff at the last minute or realize you forgot to take care of something important. Let's take a look of some of the tasks that will make for a smooth and worry-free process:
Make a plan. If you haven't already done so, this is the time to draw out your garden plan, while last year's layout is still somewhat fresh in your mind. This is important if you want to practice some crop rotation, want to plant some full-season cover crops for soil improvement in selected beds (perhaps you noticed some issues last season), or simply want to try planting some new crops that might mean taking up the space occupied by something you grew last year. If you're like me, you're always up for trying new things and experimenting with crop location. For example, last year I started a ton of annual flowers under lights, and, although it was amazing to have so many beautiful flowers in the garden, I must admit that I got carried away and struggled to make room for everything in my seed-starting set-up. This has certainly informed my strategies for this year, as I will be reining myself in a lot! No matter what your insights, making up a new garden plan will give you a pretty clear picture of how much you will be starting indoors, so it's a fantastic place to start.
Have your seeds in hand. If last growing season taught us anything, it's that waiting to purchase your seeds until they show up in the garden centers is a poor tactic. Seed shortages in stores meant that some folks didn't get their gardens in last year. I have always advised my students to have next year's seeds in hand THIS year, because seed security = food security. If you don't have your seeds yet, order them now. Whatever you don't use can be shared with those who were not as well prepared as you are. Don't wait, and do start growing open-pollinated varieties and learn to save those seeds from year to year. It's also a great time to check on the condition of any seeds you saved from last year. If they've been stored correctly they will most certainly be fine, but if, for some reason, your seeds have become moldy or raided my mice, you'll want to know that now and source out some new seeds.
Know which seeds need to be started indoors. There are many vegetables that actually prefer being sown directly into the garden, so doing your research means you'll save time, effort and valuable space in your indoor seed-starting operation.
Check your equipment. Do you have enough racks for the amount of seeds you want to start indoors? Are the lights you used last year in good working condition, or are you considering purchasing more or different lights? Now is the time to plug your lights in and replace any bulbs as needed. If you didn't use a timer for your lights last year, and you're considering buying one, it's a good time to do that as well. Last year my little clip-on fan gave out, indispensable for getting air circulation around my seedlings just where I want it, so I need to source another one asap. Making sure everything's in good order means no last minute delays.
Inventory your supplies. I use some big garbage bins for storing all the ingredients I might want for making my seed starting mixes, so it's important that I make certain I have enough of everything well before seeding time. Now is the prefect time for me to do a quick inventory of peat moss, perlite, worm castings, compost, bagged potting soil (if desired), and amendments and start purchasing what I need so I can hit the ground running. It can be challenging to source materials this time of year, as some garden centers won't hold stocks of these supplies over winter. Again, consider having these kinds of products on hand well ahead of time by purchasing in the fall while they are still available. Another thing you'll need plenty of are plant markers. Whether you make your own or purchase them, these are a necessary item for keeping track of what's seeding where. Other supplies to have on hand include seed starting trays, inserts and lids, pots of various sizes, a watering can, and a face mask for making your mixes (who doesn't have one of these now?) I know from experience that some of these items have a tendency to go awol during the summer and fall, things like extension cords for your lights, watering cans, and permanent waterproof labeling pens.
Practice good hygiene. Now this last tip might not apply to some of you, but I'm one of those folks who really likes to use something until it falls apart. That means that I am using plant trays, cell packs, lids and pots repeatedly from year to year to avoid waste (I'll even duct tape them if they split, instead of throwing them out). In this case, it's important that I ensure that I am not carrying any plant disease or pest issues into the new season and into my closed growing system. The way I protect my new seedlings is to make sure all my trays and pots are clean. I like to first do a basic rinse to remove any residual potting mix, then a good soak and wash in hot soapy water. If you had pest or disease issues last year, I recommend following this with a sterilizing bath, using vinegar in a 1:1 ratio, and allowing your pots to sit submerged in this solution for 3-4 hours. Now that's a lot of vinegar and it will take you a while to get all your pots done, but it's a very effective method. Sterilization can also be achieved using household bleach with 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. You'll definitely need gloves for this operation, and you'll want to rinse off the pots thoroughly before letting them dry. Another method is to use straight-up hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle and spray down all your pots, letting them sit for at least 20 minutes before rinsing and drying. To be honest, most of the time I use the hot soapy water method, but if I see disease or pest issues, into the vinegar bath they go. I definitely want to move into my seed-starting season knowing I've taken care of eliminating any potential plant pest and disease issues, allowing my seedlings to thrive.