Some gardeners can manage it but for most of us it is impossible to raise good seedlings in the house on windowsills.
One hopes in February to produce a dandy batch of plants to be set in the garden after freezing weather is past, but the usual result is a crop of hair-thin stems a foot high, leaning in all known directions and bearing a few sad excuses for leaves.
Then the gardener stealthily visits a garden center in April and buys plants to set out.
The solution, short of a good cold frame or a reliable greenhouse (and greenhouses are a pain in the neck, if you want the truth) is fluorescent lights, the cheap kind that are called shop lights. No need for more expensive tubes.
It's said you can install them anywhere, but the obvious place for those who have basements is down there. At my house there is a work bench, the surface of which is made of 4-by-4s (when 2-by-4s would have done), and which, needless to say, I have never used except to store old fire screens, broken tile slabs for baking etc.
I have cleared such stuff off, moving it all to a space above the 20-year-old cans of paint. I have installed a shop light.
Just here I should say I take seriously the warning not to use adapters to change a two-prong plug to a three-pronger. Naturally, before I read the warning on the box of fluorescent tubes, I bought an adapter. I went back and bought an orange 10-foot exterior extension cord.
The average hardware store will inform you that such cords are not available in less than 25-foot lengths, but that is not so. Demand your rights.
The fluorescent light comes with a little foot-long cord. There is no outlet in the western world a foot from any known place for installing the lights, so you need an extension cord. Remember that houses burn down every day from improperly used extension cords. If it is not clear to you, call an electrician. It is cheaper than a new house. And call a good electrician, I might add.
Having got the light set up, make sure the soil in which the seeds are to be sown is sterile. Some potting-mix soils are nearly sterile enough to be used right out of the bag. Otherwise, and with all soil you have dug from your garden, sterilize it by heating it. I have used a great stew pot and put in the dirt with an inch or so of water above it and boiled it for half an hour or so. Or you can use the oven if the soil is spread thin and baked for half an hour. Sometimes there are objections to these procedures, but the point is you want the soil to be free of both weed seeds and evil fungoid organisms that prevent the seedlings from growing up sturdy.
Different plants need different amounts of light. For tomatoes, 16 hours a day has been recommended (though imperfection is a rule of gardening life) and the tops of the little plants as they grow are kept only two inches below the tubes. A successful grower tells me he keeps his four to six inches below, then lets the little plants grow till they actually touch the tubes. As a novice at this, I intend to keep mine two inches below.
Again this year I shall try roses from seed. It is a futile undertaking and great fun. In the past I raised a rather pretty semi-rambler (it seems to want to go to eight feet and stop) with fragrant clusters of pink blooms off and on all summer. My notes say it was raised from a cross between 'Mme Gregoire Staechelin' and 'Dortmund.' I suspect that somewhere along the line I erred, and I suspect it is from a pod or hip of the somewhat similar 'Kathleen.'
This year my rose seeds are from a plant of unknown origin I found on New York Avenue. There is no conceivable point to raising seeds of this rose except, as I say, it is fun.
In planting seeds, the gardener rarely plants them uniformly. Some are half an inch deep, others right on the surface, and such haphazard methods bring haphazard results, which is all the poor gardener has ever expected. There are books on seed planting.
I was well into middle age before I learned that petunia seeds are sown right on the surface, and that they need light to sprout. Ah so. Forty years of failure explained in a sentence.
Zinnias, I have learned, are best sown in place in the open garden in April or May, not in pots or flats indoors. As I never grew them indoors I never made that mistake, but I have read in some authoritative place that double zinnias often come single if grown indoors and then planted out. Horrors abound.
A surprising number of gardeners have informed me they never had any luck with larkspurs until they got young plants in the spring, let them flower and seed themselves. Then they go on indefinitely. But other gardeners raise great flats of larkspur from seed indoors. There you are.
For some years I had and loved a pretty hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, which does not deserve the adjective "stinking," as I never smelled it at all. It blooms in February and on to April, its greenish saucers very welcome in the cold weather. It seeds, and usually grows beautifully if the seeds are planted outdoors as soon as ripe. It does not seem to do well if the seeds are collected, stored and planted the next spring.
I suspect hellebores are not long-lived -- they never have been for me -- so I was proud of my success from planting the seeds as soon as they were ready to drop from the plant. Then one year, nothing sprouted at all. It is nature's way of saying one should never boast, never be complacent. Nature intends all gardeners to go through life in a steady anxiety that nothing whatever is certain. Gardeners, at least, learn this sooner than most other folk.