The rule of thumb is generally to start seeds indoors about eight weeks before the last expected frost date. Two weeks after that date, you may start to plant seeds outside. Eight weeks from now puts us just about in the middle of March, and most years, this area is frost-free by then.
Growing plants from seed is extremely rewarding, especially when you see that little green seedling start to poke its head up from underneath the soil.
You will need planting pots that are at least 3 inches deep, with small holes for drainage. Peat pots are great, because they can be planted directly into the ground once the seedlings are big enough to endure outdoors.
A good seed-starting mix is essential. These mixes are sterile and blended to be light and porous, so fragile seedlings get the moisture and oxygen they need to survive.
Wood or plastic markers will help you keep track of what you planted and the date.
Plastic wrap can be used to conserve moisture
Seed packets, of course, are a necessity. Tomatoes, lettuces and herbs are great starters.
Start preparing your pots by scooping in the soil. Press the soil with the fingers, adding it until it reaches the top of the container. Dampen the soil thoroughly before sowing seeds, but it should not be soaking wet.
With a pencil, make small holes about a quarter inch deep and about an inch apart. Drop in individual seeds and cover with thin layer of dampened soil mix. Use a spray bottle to water seeds in.
Arrange the pots in trays (old baking pans are great) and cover them with plastic wrap to retain moisture and heat. Check them daily to keep the soil from drying out. Water as necessary with a gentle spray of water. If containers become too dry, put water directly into the pans so the soil in the pots can soak up water from below.
Finally, move pots to a warm place, and when seeds start to emerge, place them near a sunny window and remove the plastic covering to give them plenty of air. Still, do not let them dry out; the soil should be kept evenly moist. You want these babies to grow into nice, healthy plants for you to enjoy later.
Once the plants have emerged and are 2 to 3 inches tall with a set of two to four leaves showing, it’s time to start fertilizing once a week with half-strength liquid fertilizer.
Before the baby plants go in the ground, they need to be acclimated to direct sunlight and fluctuating temperatures. Place the trays outside in a protected shady spot for a half day at first, then two or three full days. Gradually move them into full sun, starting with mornings, then all day long. When you are ready to plant the seedlings in your garden, do it in late afternoon or on a hazy or cloudy day to minimize stress.
• The Green Thumb is a column by Tracy’s master gardeners. University of California-certified master gardeners are available to answer gardening questions from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 953-6112 or firstname.lastname@example.org.