Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

Winter is long, and for a gardening guy like me, winter can be oppressive. I keep sane, in part, by starting seeds indoors. I am just now getting ready to start a few plants that need a long head start before they go outside.

Starting plants now means I will have to baby them along for three months or so, providing light and water. It's a chore I like, so it doesn't feel so much like a chore. For tomatoes and most other veggies, I plant seeds indoors around April 10, and put them outside around June 10. Starting too early stresses most things.

You can't keep plants happy on a windowsill for six to 16 weeks. You will need special indoor lighting and a plant stand of some sort if you do many plants. Fluorescent lights are the standard for home growers. I have purchased four-foot fixtures that hold two tubes each. I hang them in an A-frame plant stand I built myself that will accommodate 10 flats of plants and five light fixtures.

I do not use special "Gro-Lights" with the same wave length light as the sun, as they are much more expensive than ordinary. I use a mixture of cool white and warm light tubes, or just cool whites, and that has always worked fine.

Many companies sell plant stands. Some light up just one flat of plants, others two, some several. A flat is a plastic tray that holds eight or more little six-packs of plants. You need to decide if you want something that fits on a table or countertop, or if you want to get into it big time. Get directions to build your own plant stand on my website ( and search for plant stand.

So what do I start in March? Onions, hot peppers, perhaps a few flowers such as lisianthus that need a long time to germinate and get to a good size for planting. I find that starting onions by seed offers me the opportunity to grow varieties that I will not find available as "sets." I also have found that by growing my own plants, I get better onions. Hot peppers also take a long time to get big, so I like to start them mid-March.

This year I am making a big push NOT to buy anything plastic that is not reusable by me. That means no flimsy six-packs for seeds. I got some heavy duty, reuseable plastic flats from Gardeners Supply last year, and like those a lot. They are also self-watering, which takes off the pressure to track the moisture of every plant every day. They are called the "GroEase" system, with either 24 large cells or 15 extra-large cells per flat.

The other way to avoid plastic is to plant in soil blocks. I have a little hand tool that will compact and squeeze out 2-inch cubes of a special planting mix I make. These cubes sit in a plastic flat, but I have plenty of those, and reuse them every year. The tool is sold by Johnny's Selected Seeds and Fedco Seeds.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Here's my recipe for the soil blocks: In a wheelbarrow or large plastic storage bin mix 10 quarts dry peat moss, three quarts sand and one-quarter cup agricultural limestone (powdered, not pelletized is preferred, but either is OK). Mix in one-quarter cup of each of these: dried blood, rock phosphate, green sand and granite dust or Azomite (optional). Instead of all those, you could substitute one cup organic fertilizer. Then add and mix in: 10 quarts peat humus, 10 quarts fine compost (your own or purchased) and 10 quarts top soil (your own is preferred, but purchased is OK).

Place four quarts dry mix in a plastic basin or flat-bottomed container, and add about one quart water. Mix until gooey but firm, not watery. Push your soil block tool into the mix, compressing the soil against the bottom of the bin. Then hold the tool over a plastic flat and squeeze the handle, which will push out four tidy blocks with a divot for a seed in the middle of each. The four cubes just fit across a plastic flat, and eight rows will fit per flat.

One big advantage the soil blocks have is that they contain all the nutrition a plant needs from seed to planting. Sterile soil mix sold for seedlings runs out of minerals in just a couple of weeks, and one must add fertilizer to the watering mix to keep plants healthy. Many greenhouses water with a dilute fertilizer mix every day. I find soil-block raised plants take off and grow as soon as they get in the ground, as their roots do not get tangled up the way they might in a six-pack.

How much light do seedlings need per day? Set your lights on a timer and give them light for 14 hours. But keep the lights near your seedlings — six inches above the tops of your plants is good. I hang my lights by lightweight jack chain and raise the lights as my plants get tall.

Don't let your seedlings wilt due to water insufficiency. Check them daily, and water when they are nearly dry. But you don't want them soggy all the time, either.

So if you are lamenting our long winter, start some seedlings, and talk to them daily. That might help, too.

Henry Homeyer is available to talk to your gardening club or library group. Just e-mail him at He is the author of 4 gardening books.