In order to make growing food at all cost-effective, we need to start our own seeds. When we buy seeds we get—for example—twenty tomatoes for $1.75, as opposed to six for $3.99 in a flat (or one for like ten dollars in a pot!). Economics aren't the only reason to start seeds, though. If you order the seeds from a catalogue you have a much wider variety of cultivars to choose from, so you can pick out just what you want to grow. Again looking at tomatoes, Home Depot has at most a half dozen different varieties, while Pinetree Garden Seeds has 60+. The only problem is resisting the urge to buy "just one more variety"!
There are other advantages to starting your own seeds. The plants you buy at big-box stores and many garden centers are often over-fertilized to make them look good for shoppers—but all that leaf development tends to make them terribly root-bound in their too-small containers. Not only does this inhibit their growth when you put them in the ground, the poor ratio of vegetation to roots means that they're at greater risk for drying out when they're not being constantly watered like they're used to at the store. And then, of course, there's also the fact that outside the farmers market it's nearly impossible to buy organic seedlings.
So what's our procedure for seed-starting? The first step is to determine when you should plant each type of seed, but I'm really bad at that so I'll say no more about it. But once the seeds hit the soil, it's all magic! Though strictly speaking it's not soil, since we use soilless medium: Fafard extra-fine seed starting mix seems to work very nicely indeed. Most of the seeds start off planted to the appropriate depth in peat flats, six of which fit into a 10"x20" plastic tray. This allows for bottom watering—that is, filling the tray with water and letting it soak up into the flats—which prevents the non-dirt from getting compacted.
While they're getting ready to germinate the seeds sit on a thermostat-controlled heating pad inside an insulated box. A plastic dome keeps them from drying out, and means we don't have to water them again until they sprout. They're lit from above by four florescent bulbs (currently two "plant lights" and two full spectrum bulbs). That obviously doesn't matter before they sprout, but once they do I'm sure they appreciate it. When most of the seeds have sprouted we take off the plastic dome and move the tray off the heating pad. There's only limited room inside the box, though, so the older seedlings have to make do with natural light on the kitchen table.
Once they've developed a few true leaves the tomatoes and peppers and things get transferred to 3" peat pots. This means that they take up a whole lot more room, but it keeps them healthier and makes it much easier to plant them out when the time comes. As the weather warms we gradually harden them off, first giving them some time outside in the shade and then eventually in full sun. It seems to take forever before the tomatoes can be safely put in the ground, but once the day comes and we see a whole row filled with little plants we know all the work was worth it!
At that point we also have a whole lot of extra plants that we don't have room for in the garden. Let us know if you'd like to take any off our hands!