BATH—Ah, spring, and the promise of the vegetable garden. The wait for fresh tomatoes and cukes, lettuces and peas, is almost unbearable to anyone who has grown their own veggies, and knows their intense reward. Even one lush tomato plant in a container can bring real joy.

At some point, most gardeners get around to the big question: How hard can it be to start my own seeds?

Well, if you’re like a friend of mine what seems easy might elude those who over-think it. Getting seedlings off to a good start might also elude those who trust nature too much; once the seeds and soil (more on that in a bit) meet, some growers might think it’s best left to nature.

The most effective method is somewhere in the middle. Those seeds need your love and attention, but give them too much and they’ll fail you.

“Too much water drowns the seedling, but too little wilts it,” says master gardener Laurie Burhoe of Bath. “Your medium should be moist when you plant the seed and should be misted with a spray bottle until the seed sprouts, and then kept moist—not damp—with the sprayer.”

Burhoe is the director of the Leading Our Community In Agricultural Learning (LOCAL) community garden in Bath, an endeavor that has blossomed into both an educational site and a source of fresh produce for many Bath families that struggle with food insecurity and financial hardship. Various local organizations distribute the garden’s bounty; some of it also ends up in school cafeterias.

The “medium” Burhoe mentioned is what you plant your seeds in. It’s not garden or potting soil: “Your seeds need what’s called growing medium. It’s lightweight, and slightly fertilized to get the seed going.”

If you don’t have an indoor spot with direct sun for your seedlings, you can use grow lights, which emit full-spectrum rays that mimic the sun. LED lights last longer, and use half the electricity of fluorescent grow lights. They’ll need to be very close to your plantings, until they sprout, and easily raised and lowered to allow for spraying and watering. Seeds sprout in three to 10 days.

“Grow lights should be directly above seedlings so that they grow straight,” Burhoe noted.

My husband starts seeds in our basement each year, and has rigged a pulley system for his grow light, which runs all day. You can buy snazzy, compact growing kits with adjustable light racks at a cost.

At night, from certain parts of the house, I can hear the pulley clicking as he raises the lights to look over his tender sprouts, and I imagine him saying goodnight in a whisper.

(He swears he doesn’t do that.)

A basic light starts around $50, and the kits with adjustable lights start around $300.

Seeds for cool weather plants such as lettuces and kale don’t benefit from a heating pad, but warm weather vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes really need a boost.

You still have time to start seedlings for warmer weather crops. It’s a bit late for your greens and broccoli; typically those seedlings should be in the ground in early- mid-May, where your cukes and eggplant don’t go in until around June 1.

A heating pad will set you back about $15-40, depending on the size and brand.

You’ll want seed trays with cells, which come with plastic lids that are also a necessity until the seed sprouts.

Some vegetable seeds, such as peas and beans, are best planted directly in the soil after threat of frost has passed.

Once the seeds sprout, remove the lids, and put them under the lights (or move to your sunny spot). Consult gardening guides about thinning them out, transplanting, “hardening off,” and fertilizing.

My friend started seeds in late March, using a grow light. Two sprouted “crops” failed.

“It can only be the light, or the water,” my friend mused one day.

“What about the seeds?” I asked. Could it be a bad batch of seeds? That seemed unlikely, since they had sprouted in the first place. That left water and light as the only variables.

After consulting with another gardener, my friend—fairly new to the process, with perhaps two seedling seasons under their belt—discovered the growing medium was too dry. Not enough love! While the medium surface was moist, my friend wasn’t spraying enough water into the little cell, a rookie mistake.

A third batch proved it. The lettuce, chard and kale is now pushing mightily towards the light and almost ready for the garden.

Burhoe says other common mistakes are not tamping down the medium around the seed enough (the seed needs to be snug), and transplanting too early. Pay attention to weather and frost warnings; an early planting with lots of rain and cool temps can result in root rot. You’ll find good guidance online for when to plant in your area.

Countless students have visited the LOCAL garden and learned about growing and harvesting fresh food. They take seed kits and instructions back to their classroom, and begin seedlings which later end up in the LOCAL garden. Burhoe was kind enough to share her basic instructions for starting seed for this article.

A tip for real first-time vegetable gardeners: Remember, when you move your seedlings to the garden, you need a raised garden with healthy soil and compost. Don’t use the dirt in your backyard, as that soil might have lead run-off or any other number of problems.

Happy growing season! A fresh cuke from one’s own garden is truly a gift.

Growing seedlings
Courtesy Laurie Burhoe and the Bath LOCAL Community Garden

What You’ll Need:
Seeds and packets with planting instructions
Growing medium
Pots or cells
Plastic trays and covers

1. Wet the growing medium until it holds together when squeezed.
2. Fill pots leaving a space at the top. About ¼ to ½ from the top is fine.
3. Make a small hole, with depth according to your seeds needs.
4. Put 1 seed in each hole unless using saved seeds, then put 2.
5. Cover seeds with growing medium. Make sure that the growing medium is not compacted or the seed will not be able to push out!
6. Keep the growing medium moist (not wet) using a spray bottle at first and a watering can when they are larger and stronger. This will likely mean watering every day. (If you are away for a weekend, put some water in the bottom of the tray to absorb up.)
7. Keep the pots/cells covered so they do not dry out. When plants are too tall you can remove the plastic top. If you start to see mold, remove the cover sooner.
8. Rotate pots so that plants grow straight up. They will follow the light from the window. If you are using an overhead grow light you can skip this direction.
9. Label with plant type and date planted. A Popsicle stick works well for this.
10. Thin seeds to one sprout per cell.
11. If there is a cell that doesn’t develop a sprout add new seed to it. (It will catch up!)
12. Optional: Fertilize after second set of leaves appears using standard organic fertilizer. Follow directions on the label.