Bunkey was having coffee with his next-door neighbor George when he mentioned that he was going to start his own plants this year. “When?” “Oh, about March 1, I guess.” There was some discussion about what Bunkey was starting: snapdragons, celery, tomatoes, peppers, melons, and cucumbers were mentioned. “You plan to start all of these at the same time?” “Sure. Why not?” Five minutes later he found out why not as George brought him up to speed.

“You need to look at the back of the seed packet. Snaps and celery need 3 months before planting. That means you need to start them now. It is a good idea to start peppers about now too, as here in our short growing season they should be blooming when you put them out. Tomatoes and most annual flowers can be started March 15 or so. Plant the vine crops the last week in April. You only want a few true leaves on them.”

Tomato and other seedlings planted indoors, under growlights.

George explained why there were different planting times for different plants. For instance, tomatoes. The fruiting time on the package is the number of days from the time they go in the garden, not from the time you plant the seeds. Vine crops just need to have a few leaves to get a good start. Too long a vine and the plant is set back because the bigger the plant, the more transplant shock, and the longer it takes for the plant to start growing again. Bunkey also needs to know the difference between the plant’s first “leaves” and true leaves. That first growth is mostly the seed’s first coat and not really a leaf.

George gave Bunkey a list of supplies he will need. He thought all he would need was some pots and some dirt. “I need a heat tape? Why?” This is to give your babies a shove. It warms the soil from the bottom, helping the seeds to sprout more quickly, and if they are in a cool basement as Bunkey’s will be, keeps them growing. Next he needs either new flats or pots or sterilized ones. Any container that has had soil in it before should be soaked in a solution of about 1 part bleach to 10 parts water for at least a half hour. Next is sterile seed starting soil in a bag that has not been opened before. This is to prevent damping off caused by disease in the soil or an unsterile pot. Potting soil is for plants already established and will be the next step after his seedlings are big enough to transplant. Usually, this is when they have 4 to 6 sets of true leaves, but he may want to wait until the plant is bigger if they are very small plants. Transplanting plants into separate pots will give them room to grow. Tomatoes are unusual as all those funny bumps on the stem are possible roots. This means they should be transplanted right up to their first set of true leaves. Do that again when they are put in the garden. More roots means more food uptake and more fruit per plant. All other plants are transplanted at the same level they were in the original soil.