The bookmark I have been using since Halloween came from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and includes a list of dates telling gardeners when to start their seeds indoors. I knew it would come in handy.

The first seed to plant, it says, is delphinium, also called larkspur. They are tall, striking plants with large spiky blossoms in blue, purple, pink and white that are a staple in the English cottage garden. Some are perennials, but the showier ones are annuals, so if you want to start them you will have to move quickly.

The first decision on starting vegetables and annual flowers from seed is whether you want to do it all. We have in our cellar 8-foot-long fluorescent lights that can be lowered (using chains hanging from the rafters) to just-planted seed pots and raised as the seedlings grow. We used to plant onions, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons and flowers of every description. We saved a lot of money in those times – money we needed to help send our children to college.

Later on, we started regularly traveling in March, and getting people to come over and water the vegetable seedlings was not practical. We seldom use the artificial-light setup now.

The advantages of planting seedlings yourself are three: You save money. You choose the exact varieties you want to grow because seed suppliers sell many more varieties than any farmer or garden center grows. And you get to be involved in the growing process from start to finish.

If those things don’t appeal to you, skip the work and enjoy Tucson or Tampa or wherever it is you vacation during mud season, and buy your seedlings when you get back to Maine in April or May.

If you’ve decided you do indeed want to grow seedlings, get supplies now.

Start with the seeds. Avoid the standards like Ace pepper and Beefeater and Early Girl tomatoes. Everybody will be planting those. Go through the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog and pick some of their newer All-America Selections winners, or the Fedco catalogue to pick varieties that performed well in their tests. Experiment a little, and try some of those small seed packets from Pinetree.

Then figure out your planting order.

Onions, including leeks and shallots, take the longest among the vegetables, and the seeds should be planted in late February. Celery, celeriac and kale seeds are planted in mid-March. Peppers, eggplant, broccoli and cabbage seeds go in early April, tomatoes in mid-April and cucumbers, melons and squash in early May.

Most home gardeners should plant in 1- to 2-inch pots, getting one seedling per pot. Commercial growers often plant seeds in 2-inch-deep flats measuring about 10 by 20 inches, and then transfer the seeds to seedling pots after they sprout. If you are growing 50 or fewer plants, don’t bother. Get small pots with drainage holes, made of plastic, peat or even paper and avoid the extra transplanting step.

Water the containers thoroughly, then fill them with a soil-less planting medium. We use Pro Mix, but there are many brands on the market.

Press the damp soil to firm it a bit and then plant seeds in the pots, covering them about the same depth as the seed is wide. Use finger pinches of dry mix for covering seeds and press again to firm the soil. Put four to six seeds in each pot because not all of them will germinate. Label each pot as you plant it and then cover them with clear plastic and put them in a warm spot, preferably 65 to 70 degrees. Large plastic trays for which you can buy clear plastic domed lids are available commercially, and if you start seeds every year you may want to purchase some of these. You can get a heat mat, too, but if you heat your home with wood, a spot near the woodstove will work well, as will on top of the refrigerator or near your basement furnace.

Now you wait – and how long depends on the seed. Squash can sprout in as little as four days. Peppers will take at least nine days and possibly as long as 14 days.

Once the seeds sprout, remove the plastic and put the pots under artificial light for 14 to 16 hours a day. If you do your planting in April or later and have a good south-facing window, a sun porch or a small greenhouse, you can use natural light from your windows. Once the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, start watering with a weak solution of liquid fertilizer. To prevent diseases that develop from soggy soil, wait between waterings until the soil is almost dry.

After a few weeks, if you have several seedlings growing in a small pot, remove all but the strongest one to give it room to grow. Using scissors to cut down the smallest sprouts may be simplest because pulling them out may pull all its fellow seedlings with them, including the one you want to grow.

Once the outdoor temperature rises above 45 degrees, you can put the plants outside for a couple of hours each afternoon, in a shady location, to harden off. Gradually increase the time outdoors and the hours of sunlight until you plant them in the garden.

When all danger of frost has gone – usually about Memorial Day in southern Maine – transplant the seedlings into your garden.

You can celebrate by wearing shorts or going to the beach.

HAND-HOLDING

NEED MORE before starting your seeds?

Visit Falmouth nursery Allen, Sterling & Lothrop’s website for guidance on how many weeks ahead of garden planting to start your vegetable and annual flower seeds.

OR GET PLENTY of general information on starting seeds in Maine at the UMaine Cooperative Extension website.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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