\r\nIn the Dirt\r\nby Ray Greenstreet\r\nStarting plants from seed is a great way to garden mid-winter \u2013 get your hands dirty, smell soil, see green \u2013 and to enjoy the simple satisfaction of growing your own plants from seed to harvest.\r\nStarting seeds indoors is not difficult, but seeds have basic needs for good germination and healthy growth.\r\nIf you\u2019re a first-time seed-starter, learn with just three or four seed varieties. It doesn\u2019t look like much, but each seed packet is capable of producing dozens of little seedlings.\r\nRead the seed packet to find out how many weeks each variety will need to grow indoors.\r\nSuccessful growing starts with the right growing medium. Garden dirt or regular potting soil is too heavy. Use fresh, seed-starting mix, available at garden centers or wherever you purchase your seeds. Thoroughly moisten the growing medium with warm water, and fill your containers to within 1\/4 to 1\/2 inch of the top.\r\n\r\nScatter the seeds on the soil surface or place individually into each growing cell. Don\u2019t sow seeds too thickly. Read the seed packet for specific planting instructions. Use a mister or just drips of water to gently moisten the growing medium. Label each flat, row, or container so you can identify them later. Save the seed packet for reference.\r\nSome gardeners cover their flats or containers with clear plastic until the seeds germinate. This helps trap heat and moisture. Seed-starting kits are readily available and can be a big help. They usually include an attached set of good-sized containers, a tray to set them on and a clear lid to hold in humidity during the early stages.\r\nAt this stage, seeds don\u2019t need much light, but they do need warmth to germinate. Set the containers on top of a refrigerator or dryer, or purchase special heating mats sold for this purpose. Check the soil every day. It needs to be moist but not soggy \u2013 you don\u2019t want the seeds to rot. Your seedlings will be much happier if you water them with room-temperature water rather than ice-cold tap water. Most seedlings like a humidity level of 50 to 70 percent.\r\nWhen the sprouts are about half an inch tall, it\u2019s time to turn on the light \u2013 and turn down the temps. Room temperature, between 60 and 70 degrees will be ideal.\r\n\r\nSeedlings need 14 to 16 hours of direct light to manufacture enough food for healthy stems and leaves. If your plants grow leggy, they\u2019re not receiving enough light.\r\nOnce your seedlings develop a second set of leaves, they\u2019ll need fertilization. Use a liquid fertilizer at half strength doses until they are three or four weeks old. After that, fertilize weekly according to the directions on the fertilizer package.\r\nAt least one week before you plan to transplant your seedlings into the garden, take them outdoors for an hour or so each day, ideally on a protected porch. Gradually increase the amount of time outdoors. Be sure to protect them from too much wind and hot sun.\r\nGardeners are always eager, but if we\u2019re have a cold spring, be patient. After weeks of nurturing your seedlings, you don\u2019t want to lose them to a late frost!\r\nHappy and successful growing!