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Natural Awakenings Chicago

3 Tips to Help You Start Your Garden Now

Mar 20, 2014 08:00AM

Photo by Megy Karydes

Paula Fraser knows we’re ALL itching to get out in our gardens. Today is the first day of Spring (on the calendar, anyway) so we took this as an opportunity to ask Fraser, president of Fraser Landscapes, based in Naperville, to give us some ideas to get started. You can get more ideas from our gardening article in this month’s issue of the magazine: When Thoughts Turn To Spring Gardening.  

If someone is toying around with the idea of starting a vegetable garden from seeds and has never done it before, what is the first thing you'd recommend she do?

Think small and creatively! Look at your environment and see if you have either a balcony, a small area of turf that could be turned into a garden area, a large container like a half whiskey barrel or a really sunny window. Anywhere you want to grow vegetables needs to get at least 6 hours of sun. More is better. But it is possible to grow some kind of vegetable just about anywhere if you are creative with providing light and enough space.

What type of equipment does one need to be successful with starting seeds indoors?

It’s pretty low entry, but like any hobby, can get fancy fast. All you really need is a container with drainage holes, some sterile soilless potting mix, and some seeds. Containers can be recycled clean yogurt cups, toilet paper tubes, or new flats from the store. Fancier equipment would include a grow light set-up, a small fan for air movement, a specialized heating pad, maybe even a hydroponic system if you want to really farm indoors. But for just starting seeds – it’s not too demanding.

What are common mistakes people make (ie soil, type of seed chosen, lighting, watering)?

Probably the most common error is one of scale. It’s best to limit yourself to about 3 varieties that will do well in your particular gardening conditions. If you have a sunny windowsill, you can grow herbs in pots. If you have a sunny balcony, you probably have room for a self-watering system that looks like a larger windowsill box or you can grow in large flowerpots. If you have ground space, definitely don’t go any larger than 4x8’ to begin. Most new (well, probably ALL) gardeners believe they will be able to find room for all the seedlings they are going to start. It’s prudent to start small and see how it goes.

Once you’ve decided on a very few things to grow, the most common error is not providing enough light; it’s important from the get-go for seedlings. Once they start to stretch towards the light they are somewhat compromised and it’s hard for them to recover when planted in their permanent spots. If the gardener doesn’t provide supplemental light, it’s difficult for the plants to get enough. If they are not going to remain inside for long, you can probably fudge this for a week or ten days after germination, as long as they are in a south-facing window. If you have a fluorescent plant light system, that’s ideal (and inexpensive).

Other problems arise from using a non-sterile growing medium, which allows diseases to knock off the beginning seedlings. Start with a bag of soilless mix from the nursery.

Watering is a delicate balance as well – too little and the seeds won’t sprout. Too much, and they drown. You want to start with moistened soilless mix, plant the seeds, spritz a little more on top and then cover the container with something clear until the seedlings pop up.

Fortunately, all these things are easily remedied with a little knowledge. Seeds want to grow and will often show a lot of resilience.