For those of us that love gardening, the mid-winter blahs are eased with the arrival of seed starting time. Called “Gardeners Christmas” (I’m kidding, I just made that up, but it feels accurate), it’s a time when we haul out our seed packets and lights, containers and heating mats, and start what will become an abundant, flourishing garden. Even if only in our dreams.

In the past, I have started seeds in old garden soil plopped haphazardly in a sunny window – but my results were mediocre at best. Strong healthy seedlings are more resistant to pests, disease, and climate damage (like sunburn and wind damage), so a healthy start will set you up for success this summer. After years of trial and error, I’ve got 5 tips to help you get your seeds started off right.

Skip soil, start with sterilized soil-less seed starting mix
A sterilized soil-less seed starting mix (say that fast 5 times) will reduce the possibility of disease like dampening off that can kill your seedlings before they ever sprout those true leaves. A seed starting mix is also light and fluffy, allowing tiny little roots the air and space they need to grow. Don’t keep your seeds in this mix too long though, it lacks nutrients, and is designed for early seedlings.

Heat mats – the seed starters secret weapon
Many seeds need warmth to germinate (except for the seeds that need cold first, but that’s a whole different topic). In our drafty winter homes, a seeding heat mat can give seedlings the little boost they need to germinate. Be sure to buy one that is purpose-built for starting seeds – these mats are waterproof, and give off just enough heat.

Tickle your seedlings
I’m not making this up. Tickling your seedlings is all about applying gentle pressure by running your hand back and forth on the seedlings to help them grow stronger. Even better is plugging in a fan near your seed starting set-up and letting it run, gently, for a few hours a day. Keep in mind that eventually, these seedlings are going to have to withstand Cochrane’s climate, so they better be ready for some wind. Wait until your seedlings have a few true leaves before you start introducing them to movement.

Your window just isn’t cutting it
Even your bright south-facing window isn’t enough light to develop strong healthy seedlings, I strongly recommend supplementary light. Grow lights don’t have to be expensive – you can select a simple LED grow bulb that goes into a desk lamp, or use ‘shop lights’ found at most home renovation stores. If you want to invest more, you can consider fluorescent high output grow lights, or look at LED options.

Wait for it…
Really, wait for the right time to start your seeds. The biggest mistake we make as cold-climate gardeners is starting our seeds too early. I find the longer I keep a seedling indoors, the more time I have to kill it. Seedlings require water, food, enough light, big enough pots, and monitoring for infestations. Ideally, you’ll just give your seedlings a head start, and allow Mother Nature with all of her fancy high-efficiency sunlight and complex soil ecosystems to do the rest of the work.

If you are new to starting seeds, you can head over to the Backyard Harvest Project for a full guide on starting your seeds indoors, as well as a seed starting calendar for zones 2, 3 and 4.

If you want to look at the bigger picture of how to design an outdoor space the is sustainable, food-producing, and beautiful, I’m offering another session of my small-group online class Creating Your Secret Garden starting on March 9th. You can get all of the details and register here.

Happy Growing! ~Callandra