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The robins have returned to Evanston, and with them has come every gardener’s natural desire to get his or her hands into the newly thawed soil. As ready as humans may be, though, the soil is not. Instead of twiddling green thumbs in anticipation, why not get started on gardens now by making this the year to start seeds indoors?

Sure, it is easy to pick up a trunkful of seedlings at the nursery and drop them into the garden over Memorial Day weekend. And seeds of certain cold-tolerant crops – such as peas, lettuce, spinach, radishes and onions – can go into the ground now.

Yet seed-starting indoors is a simple process that has many advantages. First, nurseries tend to stock only the most common plant varieties. The gardener who wants to try growing a Black Krim tomato may not find it locally. Also, having lettuce plants ready for the garden in April means eating garden-fresh salads in May. Finally, and maybe most important, starting seeds indoors gives winter-weary gardeners a jump on the season and keeps them out
of trouble.

At this time of year, seeds can be purchased just about anywhere. Most plant nurseries, hardware stores and grocery stores put up seed racks every spring. In order to find the widest variety, however, seed catalogs (and their accompanying websites) are the way to shop.

Less hardy varieties can be started anywhere there is spare room, warmth and light. Kits for starting seeds are available for about $20 through most hardware stores and seed catalogs. Gardeners can achieve just as much success, however, using a couple of old casserole pans and some empty single-serve yogurt cups with holes poked in the bottom. To get started, fill the cups or pots with a moistened soilless seed-starting mix – either a commercially available brand or a homemade mix using any of the recipes found online. Plant two or three seeds about ¼-inch deep into each pot and tamp them in lightly. (Check the seed package for specific directions.) Some of the more foolproof vegetable seed varieties for beginners are tomatoes, lettuce and basil.

The seeds know it is time to sprout when they find themselves in a warm, moist environment. Most enjoy heat provided either by a nearby furnace or a seed-starting heat mat. They will stay properly moist if their tray is covered with the plastic lid (from a kit) or by a second tray set upside down on top of the first. Most seeds require seven to ten days to germinate, during which time they should be checked daily. Once the seeds have sprouted, they are ready for daylight. Unfortunately, a sunny windowsill will not do. They’ll flourish better under fluorescent shop lights hung no more than 2 inches above the plants’ topmost leaves. As the plants grow, the light should be raised to maintain a 2-inch separation. Get a timer and leave the lights on 16 hours a day.

The soil should be kept moist but not wet by watering the seedlings from the bottom, pouring water into the tray and encouraging the plants’ roots to reach down for their moisture. When the plants reach about 2 inches in height and have a couple sets of leaves, they will enjoy a dose of kelp-based fertilizer, compost tea or fish emulsion. When they reach about 4 inches in height, it is time to move them into a larger pot.

Six weeks after germination, the plants should be prepared for the outdoors. It is a tough world in the garden and they need to get used to that fact. A week before their “planting out” date, gardeners should take their seedlings to a shaded spot in the yard for about an hour. By gradually increasing their exposure over a week, culminating with an overnight stay outdoors the night before planting, gardeners can ensure the plants will be ready to go into the garden like any other seedling.

It takes about eight weeks to start a plant from seed, which means that now is the time to get going. There are few hard and fast rules. Every type of crop is different in multiple ways. Read up, follow the directions on the seed packet carefully – and then relax. Remember that seeds want to grow. Once they do, Evanston gardeners can enjoy fresh and local – truly local – produce from the yard all summer long.

John Kayaian is a member of The Talking Farm, an initiative of the Evanston Food Policy Council (EFPC), a citizens’ group working to ensure access to a safe and diverse regional food supply and to foster awareness of healthy food choices. For more information about EFPC, please call Debbie Hillman at 847-328-7175.