Is this your year to try starting seeds? It really doesn't take much: seed, soilless potting mix, a few containers you likely have around the house, light, water, patience, attention and the urge to see something grow from the very beginning. If you have a sunny window, you may even be able to get a few plants started without artificial lights.
Once you've got the basics down, it may grow on you. Aggie Nehmzow of Oak Lawn, Ill., for example, finds herself starting more than 200 varieties of heirloom tomato seeds every year and, like many seed starters, she has developed her own techniques she swears by.
Nehmzow and Kirsten Akre, manager of the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse in Chicago, helped us with the basics.
Pick something easy. Everybody loves tomatoes, but Akre also recommends cabbage and kale because they can be transplanted outdoors much earlier. There's little point in starting the same plants you can buy at garden centers, so check through seed catalogs and "get something that's special," she says. Beginners should use freshly bought seed. Plant just a few things, but sow plenty of each so you have a cushion.
Choose containers. Anything shallow that holds soil will do - flats and six-packs saved from last year's annuals, plastic cups, yogurt containers, homemade newspaper pots, clamshell plastic containers from the salad bar. To save space, start seeds in egg cartons (or Nehmzow suggests dollar-store ice-cube trays); after germination, you'll transplant the sprouts into something larger. You will need to place the containers on something that holds water (think cookie sheet, boot tray, storage container lid). Poke ample drainage holes in each pot's bottom (unless you're using newspaper pots). Wash the pots and disinfect them by soaking them for 10 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 5 gallons of water.
Use good soil. Akre recommends a new bag of sterile potting mix, ideally a brand labeled organic. Nehmzow gets by with plain potting soil, but that's riskier; it could contain pathogens.
Read directions. The seed packet will tell you how deep to plant the seeds or whether to lay them on top of the soil, and how long the plants will take to germinate. It also will tell you when to sow, in terms of weeks before the date of the last frost (the earliest most plants can be moved outdoors).
Fill the pots. Get the potting mix about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. (If it's not a fresh bag, Akre says, you may have to add water to it the day before to get it evenly moist.) Level soil to the top of the container and then gently tap it on the counter three times, Akre says, to settle it; there should be a little space at the top of the soil to contain water.
Sow seed. Use a pencil or chopstick to poke the right size hole, if needed, and to gently nudge soil over the seed.
Hold in moisture. Mist surface of the soil gently with water, making sure not to disturb the seed, and cover with a plastic bag or a dry cleaner bag to hold in moisture. Or simply close the lid of the clamshell or egg carton.
Label seedlings. Use a permanent marker, Nehmzow says, for the plant, variety and date.
Keep seeds warm and moist until they germinate. Favorite warm spots are above (not directly on) a radiator, on top of the refrigerator or in the laundry room. Seeds sown on top of soil need light to germinate, but seeds planted deeper don't. In three to 10 days - check daily - most plants will put out cotyledons, little smooth things that look like leaves. Immediately remove the cover so air circulates.
Check the seedlings frequently; you want the soil to stay evenly moist, but never sopping. The best method is bottom watering, Akre says. Pour water into the tray so it wicks up into the soil through the drainage holes.
Find the light. Seedlings need all-day light. If you have a very sunny window, it might do, but window light alone may produce spindly plants. For stronger, sturdier plants, provide 12 to 14 hours of artificial light such as a two-tube fluorescent shop light on a lamp timer. Place lights within a foot or so of the plants. (Akre has suspended hers beneath a table with the plants sitting on the floor.)
Transplant. If you sowed in tiny containers, transplant the seedlings when they have their first set of true leaves. (They look like miniature leaves of that plant and often are a little fuzzy.) Use a chopstick or pencil to gently tease the delicate stalk and roots up out of the soil (don't pull) and settle it into the soil of the larger pot. Thin the plants so you have one strong seedling per pot.
Room to breathe. Good air circulation is key to preventing the evil fungal disease called damping off. A gentle breeze from an electric fan may help, Akre says.
Fertilize lightly. Once a week, use just a bit of an organic fertilizer labeled for seed starting (ask at a good garden center). Fish emulsion and seaweed work well for Akre, though she warns they are fragrant; worm tea, such as Terracycle, also is good.
Harden off. Before you plant the seedlings out in the garden, gradually accustom them to the outdoors over several days. Nehmzow uses a plastic-film greenhouse; you could use a cold frame, or just move the plants outdoors for a few more hours each day.
Plant them. Make sure you have the site the plants need (plenty of sun for vegetables, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter for just about everything). Remove the transplants from their pots gently without yanking on the stems and settle them in the soil at the recommended spacing (see seed packet).
Beth Botts writes for the Chicago Tribune.