Cold weather doesn't mean the gardener in you needs to hibernate. While you can have an excellent vegetable and flower garden with young plants purchased at the start of the season, starting seeds early offers the greatest number of possibilities.
Get your garden off to a great start this spring by planting your seeds ahead of time indoors!
Growing seeds inside isn't too difficult as long as you give them what they need to thrive: plenty of light, just enough water, and the right temperature.
Here's how to get an early start on the gardening season and recommendations for plants that thrive in Calgary.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Sowing seeds indoors extends their growing period, an important step for plants that aren't from the Calgary area and need more warmth and sunlight to reach maturity. Starting seeds indoors can also increase your yield and give you an earlier harvest with vegetables.
Choose the Right Medium
Because seedlings are delicate, you will need the right growing medium for success. Don't use a standard potting mix. Instead, choose a seed-starting mix that's fluffy and light to hold moisture without becoming too heavy for fine roots to push through.
Choose Your Containers
You can grow seedlings in most containers. If you have cell-packs from the previous year's annuals, you can fill them with your medium and get started. You can even use clean yogurt cups and other repurposed containers. Seed-starting kits can be helpful if you're just getting started. These kits usually include a tray with individual containers and a lid that retains humidity.
Adjusting the Light
Your seedlings need plenty of light to grow. If they don't get enough light, they will become weak and spindly. Some gardeners in Calgary have luck with seedlings in a south-facing window, but you may need to use an artificial light. An affordable fluorescent shop light should be enough for your seedlings. If you use artificial light, it should be 3-4 inches above the plants as they continue to grow. As a general rule, the seedlings should get 16-18 hours of light every day.
Warmth for Germination
The first stage of plant growth is germination, which is when the seeds begin to sprout. The seeds will need enough warmth for this process to occur but light isn't important yet. You can set your containers on the refrigerator, a dryer, a special seed-starting heating pad, or several inches above a radiator to jump-start the process. When the sprouts reach about 1/2" tall, it's time to move them to a room temperature environment with light.
Your seeds should be sown in a moistened seed-starting mix and then covered to keep in the humidity. With individual containers, you can use plastic wrap or a loosely fastened plastic bag with tiny holes for ventilation. Many seed-starting kits come with a plastic cover that works in the same way.
When the seeds sprout, they will need to be uncovered and watered from the bottom. Simply pour water into the tray on which the containers sit.
Your seedlings will probably be ready for the garden in 5-6 weeks. You may want to adjust the pampered seedlings to the harsh elements in stages. Let the seedlings outside on a porch or in the garden for a few hours a day and for longer periods of time once they approach 5 weeks from germination. The Old Farmer's Almanac offers good advice when it's time to transplant your seedlings outside.
Tips for Success
Starting seeds indoors takes some practice and daily attention. Here are some tips to increase your success:
Your seeds will sprout best when kept at 18 to 24°C.
Always plant the seeds according to the instructions on the packet. Many seeds need to pressed into the soil mixture but others need to be sprinkled on top. Seeds are also sensitive about how deeply they are planted. Some seeds germinate best with some light but others need complete darkness.
Turn your plants daily if they are on a windowsill to keep them from bending.
Be prepared to lose seedlings. This happens to everyone, especially when you're still learning the right and wrong ways to nurture the seedlings.
Start with just a few types of seeds at first to give the seedlings enough attention and help perfect your approach.
Here are some more of the most common mistakes gardeners make when they start seeds indoors.
Calgary Flower Recommendations
Canada is divided into hardiness zones that take into account soil types, annual precipitation, and temperature ranges to determine which flowers and other plants can thrive. Calgary is located in Zone 3, but many Zone 4 flowers can also survive quite well. Keep this in mind when you visit the nursery or choose flower seeds to start inside.
Because coniferous spruces dominate so much of the landscape in Calgary, you may want to add perennial plants that can add a pop of colour and thrive in the acidic, dry soil underneath the trees. Popular options include:
Lily-of-the-valley, which blooms sweet-smelling flowers every spring and can be grown from bulbs.
Bergenia. Sow seeds indoors in starter trays and transfer outside in the spring for glossy ground foliage beneath your evergreens.
Goatsbeard, which can grow to six feet tall with huge, white flowers ideal for cutting. Goatsbeard seeds can be sowed indoors in 2-inch pots with germination in 4-5 weeks.
Lady's mantle. This flower is very rewarding to grow and long-lived. It's also low-maintenance and begins to self-seed once established. Lady's mantle is often used for shady border areas.
Here are a few more ideas for flowers you can start indoors:
Poppies. Poppies come in many colours and can be grown very easily from seed or a taproot.
Black-eyed Susan. A popular choice for beginners with bright yellow petals and a black centre.
Columbine. This beautiful flower is easy to grow and comes in many colours with elegant flowers that add personality to your garden.
Allium, which blooms in many sizes and shapes.
Maiden pinks, which work well in rock gardens and full sun with solid pink flowers.
Yarrow, a very hardy plant with aromatic foliage, a long bloom time, and a tendency to spread easily.
Once it's time to transplant your flowers outdoors, these lovely choices will quickly beautify your backyard.
Calgary Vegetable Recommendations
Some vegetables produce an even greater yield when given a long growing season. You can even start seeds indoors for winter crops. Here are some veggies that grow well from seeds started inside (and can add some freshness to your organized kitchen.)
Think of all the quick and easy meals you can prepare for your family with your very own homegrown veggies!
Starting seeds indoors may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but there isn't much more to it than providing the basic elements the seedlings need to thrive and supervising their growth. Once you've experienced some success with indoor seed-starting, you'll probably be hooked on how easy it can be to grow vegetables and flowers you won't see in the neighbour's garden.