A Seed Starting Primer
Sooner or later, many gardeners will venture into the realm of seed starting. Many will also become a bit discouraged. While it is true that there is more to seed starting than popping a few seeds into moistened starting media, seed starting need not intimidate anyone. I encourage everyone to try their hand at starting a few plants this year “from scratch”. It is rewarding, and a great way to while away the waning days of winter.
Why start your own seeds when there are so many wonderful greenhouses, garden centers, and other places where you can purchase started plants? For me, the biggest factor is money. Seeds are less expensive than purchasing young plants or seedlings. Close on the heals of saving money is variety. Many new plant varieties simply are not available as started plants. If you want to grow unusual vegetables, annuals, or perennials, oftentimes seed starting is the only option for the home gardener to acquire these unusual or newer varieties of plants.
For a basic outline on how to start seeds, there are several things that must be present to ensure success: proper containers, proper growing media, proper moisture, proper light, proper temperature, good air circulation. A big must is cleanliness. Just as you would not dare can preserves or anything for that matter in jars with lids that were not absolutely sterile and clean, you must follow the same idea with seed starting. Containers must be clean and free of fungus spores, planting medium must be sterile, etc. The idea is to prevent disease formation in young seedlings, particularly damping off.
I generally use peat pots filled with moistened sterile soilless mix. I also use cell packs or 2×2 plastic starting pots. If I use containers that have been used previously, I clean them and then dip them in a solution of bleach and water, 1-2 Tbsp of household bleach to the gallon. Dip the scrubbed containers in this solution to kill any spores, then let dry thoroughly. If you are using old margarine tubs, whipped topping containers, be sure to poke at least three or four holes in the bottoms to allow for drainage. Don’t make the holes too large, though; the idea is to maintain drainage, but not so large that water and planting mix drain out. A good tool for doing this is an awl or the tip of a hot glue gun. Just use the tip, don’t force the larger part of the barrel tip through.
Start planning what you want to grow and purchase the seeds as early as possible. Some seeds require extensive time indoors for germination and growing. Be sure to refer to a seed-starting chart for length of time and the best method for germination and growing on indoors. Be aware that some seeds require pre-chilling, or stratification. Some seeds require nicking the surface, scarification, or benefit by soaking for a while before sowing. Some require bottom heat, and some require total darkness. Read up before purchasing so you will be prepared on how to properly start your chosen plants. If you are in a garden center, read the backs of the seed packet labels for the proper method and time to start seeds.
Find out what your average last frost date is. If a given variety of seed needs to be started 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost date, count back that time to when you can safely plant the seeds. For example, if April 30 is your last average frost date, then from about February 12 to 19 would be about right for something requiring 10 to 12 weeks for starting indoors.
Now for planting mixes or medium: Forget about sterilizing soil in the oven. It is messy, not the best medium for indoor seed starting, and stinks to high heaven while sterilizing! Be sure to use a good, sterile seed starting mix. I used to blend my own with milled sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, and whatever else. Now, I am just as content to let others blend a good mix, and I am willing to pay the price. Most soilless mixes are relatively inexpensive, so why bother with some magic blend? My time is precious, as I am sure yours is, too. Follow the directions on the bag for moistening the medium, and fill your containers, as directed.
The best “tool” for starting some of the larger seeds is a pencil. Pop the point into the medium the required depth, and add the seed. Cover with sifted medium and spritz the top to moisten, not douse! For finer seed, adding a little sand to the seed packet will help to evenly distribute the seeds when planting. Press dust like seeds onto the moistened surface. Place your containers on trays, and add saran wrap or some other plastic wrap over the top of the containers and trays to seal in the moisture. Now, bottom heat is very helpful to absolutely necessary in order for most seed to germinate. You can supply bottom heat with a heating mat, or place trays of planted pots on a water heater or my favorite, on top of the refrigerator. Keep your plantings away from cold windowsills or drafty areas. If total darkness is required, then place newspaper on top of the plastic-covered containers, or place them into a dark trash bag before placing on top of the refrigerator. Check for signs of germination. When most of the seeds have sprouted and are showing their first set of leaves, or seed leaves, remove the plastic cover. Keep them moist, not soggy. Now is the time to add supplemental lighting.
Lighting is crucial. If you do not have a greenhouse or extremely bright southern exposure, you will need supplemental lighting. There are many different lights that can be used. Flourescent lights and grow lights that offer full spectrum lighting are the best choices for a reasonable price. LED lights are available, but often costly. Forget standard incandescent light bulbs. They do not supply the lighting required for strong plant formation and they give off too much heat. You can purchase pre-wired light stands for megabucks, or you can rig your own system. I have a storage shelf system that I bought from a discount store for under $30. I used thin plywood panels cut to the size of the shelves, screwed in cup hooks, and added chains to suspend the attached lights so I could raise and lower them as needed over the seedlings. It is inexpensive and has served a good purpose for many years. I have used both grow lights and fluorescent lighting with this system with good success. When I use fluorescent, I combine one warm light with one cool light tube for the proper light spectrum. Also, I change my light tubes every other year. After a while, the light spectrum does decline, although it might not be apparent to the naked eye.
When using a lighting system, keep a few principles in mind: Aim for about twelve hours of supplemental lighting per day. Just be sure the lighting is within a few inches, not feet, of the tops of your seedlings. As your plants continue continue to grow, the lights can be raised up a bit. Plants should be within two to three inches of the light source, but not touching.
If you do choose to use a bright windowsill, keep an eye out for cold drafts and spindly growth. Also, you will need to rotate your plants every day to keep them growing straight, as they will tend to bend towards the light source from your windows.
Once seedlings start to develop true leaves, thinning becomes an issue. If seedlings are not properly thinned, they are more susceptible to diseases such as damping off and will be competing with each other. Snip the excess seedlings with a pair of scissors so the remaining seedlings will not be disturbed.
Water from the bottom of your pots, and check the moisture levels every day. Warm winter homes means dry air. Seedlings will become stressed if they are allowed to dry out excessively. While they do not require the constant moisture level as starting seeds do, seedlings do require even, not soggy moisture.
Once the seedlings are up and running, so to speak, they will need to be thinned. Thinning assures that the strongest plants grow on and helps prevent the spread of disease and allows for better circulation as they grow on. Thin when the first true sets of leaves develop.
After the first true sets of leaves arrive, your seedlings will require food. Feed a half-strength solution of sea kelp, fish emulsion, or complete organic fertilizer. Add by bottom watering. As the plants develop, many will appreciate a foliar feeding as well.You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or overly big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium. You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or too big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium.
Keep good air circulation between your seedlings. Again, this helps prevent the spread of disease.
When it is time to transplant, you will need to harden off your seedlings. Do this by moving them outside for a few hours each day. Put them in a shaded, protected area. Gradually increase the time outdoors and increase the exposure to sunlight until they are basically outside during the daytime hours in the same light and exposure they will be when transplanted.
You can literally save hundreds of dollars by starting your own seedlings. It is a great way to spend the waning days of winter and a sure cure for cabin fever and a great way to get in a “dose” of gardening before the main gardening season begins!