THE CHEAPEST WAY TO GARDEN
Spring has arrived and gardeners are itching to get their hands dirty. However, it's too early to start planting in colder parts of the country, since seeds and young plants shouldn't go into the ground until after the last frost. But frugal gardeners can get a jump on the weather. Growing flowers, vegetables, and herbs from seed indoors is cheap, fast, and gets you started right away. When the weather finally warms up and the threat of frost has passed, the plants can be transferred into the ground.
WHAT TO PLANT
Seed catalogues start arriving in January, giving gardeners weeks to dream of the flowers and edibles to come. The choices are almost limitless depending on the amount of space you have, how cold it gets where you live, and the amount of sun your garden receives. Spend some time reviewing catalogues, and you'll get an idea about which plants will work for you. If outdoor space is a problem, you can always grow herbs, small vegetables, and flowers on a deck or patio.
TYPES OF PLANTS
Flowering plants are beautiful and help maintain the ecology of your yard. Many gardeners start annual plants early indoors so they're ready to bloom as soon as the weather changes. Popular annuals, which live for only one season, include zinnias and marigolds. Perennials, which live for at least two years, can also be started indoors, but you need to make sure that the plant can survive the winter in the ground in your area and that you have the right kind of soil and light. (Check the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website for frost maps and weather guides.) Perennial herbs such as thyme and sage can be started on a sunny windowsill. Vegetables need more space. Tomatoes, radishes, and lettuces can be started in planter boxes, while peas and cucumbers need a trellis.
Hardware stores and garden centers sell plastic plug flats, large trays filled with small cells that hold seeds and nutrients, for about $3. You can also make your own planters out of milk cartons, egg boxes, take-out containers, or even rolled up newspaper, or anything that will hold an inch or two of seed-starting mix. Make sure to use a tray underneath to catch moisture.
WHEN TO PLANT
Seed packets tell you when to start, usually four to six weeks before the average last frost. This gives them time to germinate, sprout, and become strong enough to transplant into a pot or garden soil. Once the seedlings sprout two sets of leaves, move them either into the ground or a bigger pot filled with potting soil. When the last frost date rolls around, pay attention to the weather. If it's still cold out, wait a while -- most new plants need to be placed into soil that has warmed up a bit. Moving your plants outside too early might kill them.
HOW TO PLANT
Seeds need four things to germinate and grow: heat, water, a strong source of light, and some seed starting mix, which you can buy at a gardening store for just a few dollars. Wet the mix until it's damp but not dripping and spoon it into your planters. Sprinkle seeds over the planting beds, about two per cell. The seed packet will tell you if the plants need another layer of potting mix on top. Cover the containers with plastic wrap (or a take-out container lid), making little greenhouses for your seeds. Then consult the seed packet for recommended lighting. If your plants do not need light to germinate, they still need heat, so put them on top of your refrigerator until you see a little spot of green. Once the seeds have sprouted, take the cover off.
It's possible to start your seeds in a south-facing window, provided it gets a full day of sun. It is necessary to turn the seedlings, though, so they don't get "leggy" (spindly stems with no leaves) as they reach for the light. It's better to put them directly under an artificial light, using a standard fluorescent fixture with two bulbs. The light source should be two to three inches from the top of the seedlings.
The potting mix needs to be moist while the seeds are germinating and growing, but too much water can kill them. Either spray the seedlings with a mister periodically or keep water in the tray underneath the containers. After the seeds have sprouted and start growing leaves, add a little water-based fertilizer diluted to quarter strength once a week.
Pretty soon the little seedlings will outgrow their tiny starter pots. If it's still too cold outside for planting, move them into larger pots. You can use either peat pots designed for this purpose or plastic drinking cups with holes punched in the bottom for drainage. As you transplant, thin the seedlings so there's only one per pot. Dig up the plants with a spoon and let the soil fall away. Pick the strongest plant in the cell to transplant. Don't touch the seedling at its stem, which is very delicate, and avoid tearing the little roots. Push a pencil into the soil to make a hole that's deep enough for the seedling to go into at the same depth it was before.
GET IT OUTSIDE
Once the weather is warm enough to put the plants in the ground, you need to "harden them off." Put the pots outside for a few hours at a time in a shady location shielded from wind. Leave them outside a little longer each day, with increasing amounts of direct sun. In about a week they will be ready for planting in the ground. Plants in peat or newspaper pots can go directly into the ground, but cut out the bottoms so the roots can grow and cut the tops back so moisture isn't wicked away from the plant. Transplant the little guys into prepared soil at the same depth they were in the pot.
Now for the easy part: Collect your vegetables, enjoy your herbs, and create beautiful bouquets all summer long!