Time to start vegetable garden seeds

Start peppers, eggplant and tomatoes indoors now to enjoy an early harvest this summer.

After true leaves develop, transplant tomato seeds into 3-to-4-inch pots and grow under lights. Photo: Dennis Brown, CC BY-SA 3.0

After true leaves develop, transplant tomato seeds into 3-to-4-inch pots and grow under lights. Photo: Dennis Brown, CC BY-SA 3.0

If you are planning to grow your own tomatoes, peppers or eggplant, it’s time to get those seeds started. Michigan State University Extension suggests the following tips for starting the seeds indoors.

Always start with fresh media and new, clean seed flats and pots for your seeds. “Damping off” is a general term for several common seedling diseases that can wipe out your seed starting efforts in a hurry, and can often be found in media, trays or pots that are reused. For best results, you will need fluorescent lights that can be positioned above the seed flats and the height adjusted upward a few inches above the plants as the seedlings grow. Incandescent lights give off too much heat to work well for this purpose. Bottom heat is recommended for starting pepper, tomato and eggplant seeds indoors. You can use heating cables or seedling heating mats to warm the soil.

Pre-moisten the growing medium and water gently with a watering can or rubber bulb sprinkler that has a fine rose (sprinkler head) on it so that you won’t displace the seeds you have just carefully sown. A half strength fertilizer can be used once after the transplants get established in their pots.

Starting pepper seeds

Peppers are usually started indoors about eight to 10 weeks ahead of outdoor planting. Use a seed starting mix and sow seeds at a depth of .025 inch spaced about four seeds to the inch. The growing medium needs to be kept warm until seeds germinate for best results. Keep evenly moist, but do not overwater. With a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, it will take about two or three weeks for the seeds to germinate. Seeds will germinate quicker indoors when the growing medium is kept at 80-85 F. However, if it is only 55-60 F, the seeds may rot before they germinate.

Sow seeds in flats and transplant into 2-inch cells or 4-inch pots once they have their first true leaves. Once seeds are transplanted, 70 F day time and 60 F nighttime temperatures are best. Keep lights on 16 hours a day and about 3-4 inches above the plants.

Two newer pepper varieties to try are ‘Zavory’ and ‘Lunchbox.’ ‘Zavory’ is a pepper with Habanero flavor but not the heat. At 100 Scoville units, this pepper provides a pleasant mild bite instead of a towering inferno of heat (Habanero is 100,000-350,000 Scoville units). ‘Lunchbox’ snack peppers come in red, yellow and orange and are small but sweet (about 2-2.5 inches long). They make a tasty and colorful addition to salads, work well for cooking and are great to stuff for appetizers.

Starting tomato seeds

Tomatoes should be started five to seven weeks ahead of transplanting. Start seeds in flats using soilless mix at a depth of .025 inch and seed spacing of four per inch. Seeds germinate better in the dark. Keep soil temperatures between 75 and 80 F until seeds germinate.

After true leaves develop, transplant them into 3-to-4-inch pots and grow under lights. Grow the seedlings at 60 F to prevent them from getting too leggy. Don’t start them too early or you may end up with plants that are leggy and stunted. You want to have plants ready to transplant out in the garden after about seven to eight weeks. Ideal plants will have buds but no open flowers or fruits.

If late blight has been a problem in your garden in past years, some tomato cultivars you may want to try are the cherry tomatoes ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Jasper,’ the Roma-type ‘Juliet,’ the indeterminate cultivar ‘Damsel’ and the determinant cultivars ‘Defiant’ and ‘Mountain Merit.’

Starting eggplant seeds

Eggplant needs to be started eight to nine weeks ahead of transplanting out. Seeds will germinate best at temperatures of 75-90 F. Use a seed starting mix and sow seeds at a depth of 0.25 inch spaced about four seeds to the inch. Thin to 2-3 inches apart or transplant them to 2-to-3-inch pots after they form the first true leaves. Keep lights on 16 hours a day and about 3-4 inches above the plants.

Eggplant can be challenging to grow in cooler climates. Some cultivars to try that do well in cool weather as well as during periods of heat stress include the long, slender Asian type ‘Orient Express,’ and the white and purple variegated ‘Calliope’ or the Italian type ‘Nadia.’

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