The lengthening days (8 hours and 57 minutes on January 1; 11 hours and 13 minutes on March 2) and strengthening sun give us some hope that spring is on the way. So do fragile green seedlings stretching toward the light. By now, if you’re starting your own garden seedlings you have some started or will start them in the next few weeks. In recent columns we’ve discussed starting and growing mediums and containers to hold them. This week we’ll look at what to do once those seedlings have sprouted.

It’s hard to give blanket instructions on when to start the myriad types of plants you may want to raise, but a simple way to start is to take all your seed packets and separate them into inside or outside sowing. The outside pile will probably include peas, beans, corn, radishes, carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers and squashes, and most annual flowers, such as zinnias, asters, nasturtiums, sunflowers, bachelor’s buttons and calendulas. They can be set aside for planting time. Then read the instructions on the seeds to be started indoors: they’ll tell you whether to start planting five, six, seven or eight weeks before planting outdoors, though that won’t specifically include how long it might take to germination; but, in general, if you’re starting around mid-March you’ll be in the ballpark. One additional note: seeds don’t need light to germinate. They need moisture and warmth, which could make the top of your refrigerator or a bookshelf near a heat vent the ideal spot for your planted seeds. Just remember to mist them or lightly water, and keep them under a plastic cover so they don’t dry out.

Once seeds have germinated, they need enough light. If you grow on a sunny windowsill, you’ll see the slender stalks will bend toward the light, signaling that the plant containers need to be rotated continually to keep them growing straight and tall. If you use a grow light stand, you need to keep the light about three inches above the plants. Many people will tell you that without grow lights your plants will be spindly and pale, but with the lengthening days, your plants can now thrive in a sunny window.

Water is the second most important element in growing seedlings. They need to be constantly moist but not soggy, which is why a spray mister is one of the most useful watering devices. You can use any spray bottle, but if you think you’re going to be in the seed-starting game for the foreseeable future, a seedling sprayer bulb with a spraying rose on it is an excellent investment. Whatever you use, make the water room temperature and gently pour or spray a bit at the base of the seedlings; it’s easy to knock them over with a stronger stream of water. Let the soil dry out between waterings until it’s just damp to the touch.

The planting medium you’ve used has enough nutrients to get your seedling growing, but once the true leaves appear, you’ll want to start supplemental feeding. A good liquid organic or fish-based fertilizer applied at half strength every two weeks is plenty.

One component of starting seedlings is ensuring good air circulation. Foliage needs to be dried out between waterings to prevent funguses, and moving air that mimics the breezes found outside will also give your seedlings strong stems. If you have a fan, setting it so it gently rustles the plants for an hour or so twice a day can suffice. You can also get in the habit of lightly brushing your hand over the tops of the plants when you water, ruffling them and creating movement.

When your plants get bushy, with three or four true leaves, pop one out of its container and see how well the roots are filling out. If they’ve begun to circle around, it means they’re running out of room to grow and should be potted up into a larger container. The new containers should be about twice as large as the old ones. Before starting to pot up, have some plant labels and waterproof markers on hand so you don’t end up with mystery varieties. Water your seedlings before starting so that the soil will cling to the roots. Use a table knife or long chopstick to prick the seedlings from their containers. If you’ve got two seedlings that are doing well, tease the roots apart and separate them. If one is much smaller, just pinch it off. Put some soil in the bottom of a new pot, set the seedling inside, sprinkle in more soil and tamp it lightly. Put your markers in the pots or write the name of the variety on the side of the pot. Water with your diluted fertilizer to settle the roots in the new soil and encourage healthy growth.

There! You’re all ready to just sit back and admire your seedlings, with only watering and turning needed until it’s time to harden them off, which will take place five to seven days before transplanting into the garden. To harden off, your seedlings are trundled outside and set in a sheltered, lightly shaded spot for the day, then brought back inside for the night. I’ve mentioned this in the past but will bring it up again, since it can make the hardening-off process easier: I placed all my seedlings in a Gardenway-type cart and wheeled them outside for the day, covering the cart with the lightest Reemay for wind and sun protection. Then I wheeled it back into the woodshed at night. A child’s wagon would serve equally well.