If you haven't saved cell packs from last year's plants, you can purchase inexpensive ones from your local nursery. (If reusing last year's packs, disinfect them for 10 minutes in a 90/10 water/bleach solution.)
Or you can start seeds in clean yogurt containers, egg cartons or even eggshells (rinse shell half and carefully poke a tiny hole in the bottom with a pin).
1 Fill your container with moist, soilless seed-starting mix (never use garden soil; it's too dense and can contain organisms that could lead to disease) and sow three or four seeds per cell, pressing gently.
2 Keep moist. Watering through holes poked in the bottom of containers will avoid accidentally washing away seeds and greatly reduce the odds of fungal diseases. This is easily done by placing containers in a tray filled with water. Cover cells tightly with plastic wrap.
3 Set in a warm, cozy spot, out of direct sunlight. (The top of your refrigerator is ideal.) Check periodically and water as necessary. Keep an eye out for "damping off," an airborne fungal disease that thrives when seed trays are kept in cool, damp, dark locations. You'll recognize it by a characteristic white mold layer on the soil surface. If this happens, scrape it off and allow medium to dry completely between waterings.
4 When seedlings pop up, remove the plastic wrap and place containers in bright sun or, even better, under fluorescent lamps, for 14 hours daily. Temperatures of 65-75 degrees will ensure best results for most plants. Remove weakest seedlings.
5 A week before transplanting into the garden, begin to "harden off" plants by placing them outdoors each day. Pick a shady spot protected from wind and start with a half-hour, adding an hour of exposure each day until they're getting eight hours of outdoor exposure daily. Continue watering.
Recycle to create seed pots
You can save money by recycling newspapers into seed-starting pots. It's easy, it's free and planting the entire biodegradable pot will virtually eliminate chances of transplant shock. (Newsprint ink is generally nontoxic.) Here's how:
1 Fold a newspaper sheet in half lengthwise. Fold it again.
2 Place a tomato paste can along one edge of the newspaper, a couple of inches from the bottom. Roll the newspaper tightly around the can.
3 Fold the excess newspaper at the bottom of the can into the newly created tube.
4 Set the wrapped can right-side up and press down on it, twisting a bit, to shape the bottom.
5 Remove the can.
Danger of frost dictates start time
Some seed packets advise starting seeds indoors a set number of weeks before the average last frost date, and depending on where you live - even within Long Island - that date varies.
In Eastern Nassau and most of Suffolk, the average is April 20. There's a small part of Suffolk, in the center of the Island around the pine barrens, that remains cooler. Folks who live there should wait at least a week longer.
Now that you know your average last frost date, count back the number of weeks recommended on your seed packet. That's when you should start your seeds indoors to ensure they grow big and strong enough to transplant outdoors at the right time, allowing a week or so for hardening off.
But if the instructions read, "When the danger of frost has passed," that's a different story, as the average last frost date doesn't guarantee anything.
In our area, the danger of frost is considered to have passed in early to mid-May in Nassau and mid- to late May in Suffolk.
I like to wait until Memorial Day, just to be safe. As a coincidental bonus, you have a nice long weekend to get the garden going.