• Buy seeds from a reputable source, such as garden centers and seed catalogs. If you’re buying from a store that doesn’t specialize in gardening, be sure to check the package date to be sure the seed was packaged for this year.
• Find out when to start seeds by checking the date for transplanting a particular plant outside and subtracting the number of weeks needed to grow the transplant. The target date for transplanting the cool-season crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and onions are the end of March to the beginning of April. Warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers and most annual flowers are usually planted about May 10.
• Use a seed-starting “soil” mix for starting seeds; garden soil is too heavy.
• Keep seed moist, watering often enough that the “soil” never dries. Putting plastic wrap over the container can keep moisture in. Remove the wrap after the seedlings emerge.
• Most plants will germinate in either darkness or light, but some require darkness (including larkspur and phlox), and others require light (including lettuce and petunias). Once the seedlings emerge, they all need light. South-facing windows are your first choice, but they don’t always provide enough light, so fluorescent fixtures are often used, suspended 2 to 4 inches above the top of the plants and left on for 16 hours each day.
• Seeds like warmth for germination, such as that found on the top of a refrigerator. A heating mat will give you the most consistent germination. After germination, plants can be kept at a lower temperature (65 to 70 during the day and 55 to 60 at night). This helps prevent tall, spindly transplants.
• Brushing your hand over the plants stimulates them to be stockier and less leggy. Try 20 strokes a day.
• Prepare plants gradually to go outdoors about two weeks before transplanting. Increase the number of hours and degree of exposure to sun and wind over the two-week period.