The seed packets are sitting in a stack or in a box or in a bag, calling your name.  The days are getting a bit longer and brighter, a few of them are almost warm, and I hear the internet voices asking, “When, oh Garden Guru, can I start my garden?!”

The answer is very soon, but not just yet.

Exactly when you can get those seeds in the ground depends on the weather and what is going in your little patch of earth.  Traditionally in north Alabama, early spring crops are planted on or just after St. Patrick’s Day.  That means lettuce, spinach, mustard greens, radishes, English peas, Irish potatoes and turnips and turnip greens.  But in order for those seeds to germinate, the soil temperature needs to be at least 50F.  Depending on where exactly you are, you may be able to plant sooner or later than others.  Here in Madison, it looks like we are going to be delayed until the 3rd week of February before we can count on the soil getting up to 50F and staying there.   So I must be patient just a little while longer.

A soil thermometer is one of the very few gardening gadgets you actually need.  I recommend a plain stainless steel version with a dial.  These can be purchased for under $10 and will last many years with a modest amount of care.

Looking ahead to warm season planting in mid April (assuming the weather is normal), it is getting time to start seeds for crops you plan to transplant.  Seeds should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before transplanting.  In our climate, that means seeds should be started mid February until early March.  I only recommend starting peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos as transplants.  All beans, squashes, melons, gourds and cucumbers perform better in the long run if they are direct seeded outdoors, and will not produce any sooner if you do start them inside.

While it’s too cold to plant outside, tiny seedlings started indoors can help ease that spring planting fever.  Important notes to remember when starting your seeds:

  • If you are using last year’s soil mix, it will need time to rehydrate fully before it will retain enough moisture to be a good growing media for seeds.  I get my pots filled, then add water slowly until it runs out the bottom.  Repeat in 30 minutes.  Continue until the soil is fully moist like a wrung-out sponge.  If this sounds like too much work, dump the old mix in your garden and buy a new bag.  Sealed bags from the store should be properly hydrated.
  • Label your seedlings well!  Don’t count on remembering which are which; you likely won’t after they get moved a few times.
  • Put your seed pots in a consistently warm place that stays at about 70F and has a high humidity.  No windowsills!  It will get too cold there and the temperature will fluctuate too much.  The top of the refrigerator is often an ideal warmth.  If you need to start seeds in a colder room like a garage or basement, you can purchase a seedling heat mat and thermostat.
  • Once the seeds are germinated, they need lots of light.  You can use shop lights or aquarium lights instead of dedicated “plant” lights, but be sure to get the light right above and just a few inches from the seedlings.
  • Don’t overwater and don’t get the seedlings wet — this causes seedlings to die, often of a fungal disease whose symptoms we call “dampening off.”  Water from the bottom if you can.
seed starting, soil

Dry potting mix that needs to be rehydrated.

Nicole Castle Brookus

Nicole advocates a non-dogmatic approach to sustainability, integrated pest management, permaculture, community involvement and resilient local food systems, and is available for on-site consultations and speaking engagements. She lives in Madison, Alabama and is also a nature photographer. Learn more about Nicole's work towards sustainable food systems at Southern Foodscapes and see her art & photography at Brookus.com.