Q: I’ve never started my vegetable plants from seed. Since I don’t have a greenhouse or any lights, is this something I can do outside? I like the idea of trying to raise my own plants to save money, but also to see if I can do it.
A: We’ve all been there, and there’s special satisfaction in seeing something go from seed to fruition in a season. It’s like raising kids without many of the headaches. Everyone has a different way to get started, and it can be done outside depending on what you want to grow and where you live.
Tomatoes are a great place to begin, but in most parts of the country you’ll have to have some kind of protection for outside sowing. A cold frame can be made from and old window and some cheap lumber — there are plans all over the Internet. The glass is set on a 35 degree angle facing south. Find out which planting zone you are in. If it’s 5 or higher, tomato seeds could be germinated inside, then set out in a cold frame in early spring. Temperatures can never drop below freezing in the cold frame or you’ll lose the plants.
For tomatoes, a safer bet is to hang a couple of fluorescent shop lights right above a couple flats of started tomato seeds for 6 weeks inside, before setting the plants outside. The lights are cheap and can be raised as the plants get taller. You’ll find lots of uses for the light over time, before I had a greenhouse my basement was filled with lights over a 4 x 8 foot table.
But there are lots of plants that will thrive in cool weather and will happily sprout in the cold frame. A flat filled with moist seed-starting mix sprinkled with a mix of lettuce seeds will give you hundreds of plants to transplant into the garden in the spring.