Starting plants from seed is one of the most economical ways to get your vegetable garden going but I often find most new gardeners are more than a little intimidated by the process. So, in this post, I want to highlight some tips to help ensure your success.
Use Fresh Seed
Although properly stored seed can last for years, over time seed germination rates (the amount of seed that will sprout) will go down. Germination rates decrease quickly if seed is stored in locations that are hot or humid. To make sure you are getting fresh seed, purchase your seed from a knowledgeable dealer. This means passing up those really cheap seed packets at the grocery store. Why? Because it is likely that those seeds may have been stored in areas that are too hot or damp which can make the seed less viable. You will also want to look for seed that has a packaging date and make sure it is for the current year.
Use a Sterile Seedling Mix
I recommend that beginning gardeners use a purchased seedling mix to start their plants rather than make their own. Seeds need the right amount of consistent moisture to germinate. They also like a mix that is fairly light and fluffy. I find this one by Espoma works well. When purchasing your seedling mix from a garden center, make sure it is stored in a dry location, preferably indoors. Mixes stored outdoors and exposed to the elements for too long can also contain pathogens and fungi. Not something you want around your seedlings.
Skip the Seed Starting Kits
I find most new gardeners run into problems when they purchase those mini greenhouse type kits that come with the little peat discs or tiny planting cells and get covered with a dome. The peat discs are often small and the plants need to be transplanted more than once as they grow. The dome covers often keep the seedlings too warm or too wet. Instead of a kit I prefer using these handy fiber pot strips. They are a bit larger which means I can normally grow seedlings to size in these pots and then transplant straight in the garden. They do have a hole in the bottom I find a bit large so I cover it with a small square of newspaper. For trays to set the pots in, I use those cheap square aluminum baking pans.
Moisten Your Seed Starting Mix First
I dump the amount of seed staring mix I think I will need in a bucket and then moisten it with water. You want it to be moist enough so that it starts to clump together but not so wet that water puddles at the bottom of the bucket. Stir the water in well and let it sit for about 30 minutes or so. If need be, add more water. This allows the peat to get nice and hydrated. I then work right over the bucket to fill the seed trays. You fill the fiber pots the same way they taught you to measure flour in home economics. Scoop up some soil and dump it into the pots, then run the side of the shovel over the top to level the soil and scrape the excess back into the bucket. You don’t want to pack your soil too tightly into the trays.
Cut Fiber Squares
Different plants grow at different rates. Lettuce is quick to germinate and grow whereas peppers can be slow. I cut off the amount of fiber pots I need for the amount of a particular plant I want to grow. If I want six red leaf lettuce plants, I cut off six pots. If I want only four tomatoes, I cut off four pots. This allows me to plant out or move varieties without having to disturb the rest of the plants. It also means I only need one label to know what is in each grouping of pots
Label as You Go
You think you will remember which varieties of peppers you have in each pot, but you probably won’t. You can buy labels, use popsicle sticks or do what I do. I cut up strips out of plastic or paper milk cartons that are about 1/2 inch wide and four inches long. I use a Sharpie to write the variety of plant and date I planted it. I do this before I get my hands dirty so they are ready to pop into the trays as I go. The reason for the planting date is that seed packets will often tell you how many days until the seed pokes it head out of the ground. This is, however, a guideline. I have had seeds come up much sooner than expected and others (that I had given up on) surprise me at a much later date.
To make holes in the seed starting mix for the seedlings, I use a wooden skewer. To make sure they are at the proper depth, I make 1/4 inch marks on the bottom of the skewer to the 1/2 inch mark. I never plant seeds that need to be planted deeper than 1/2 inch in small seed starting pots. Poke the skewer into the soil to the proper depth, drop in your seed and pinch the soil over to cover.
Because you moistened your soil when you started, you only need to mist your soil when you are done and then as it dries out which may be once or twice per day. I like to use a spray bottle to water the seedlings and spray the soil until it gets good and damp. I will also pour a bit of water just to cover the inside of the drip tray so that I can assure the bottom portion of the pots stay moist as well. Remember your goal is to keep all the soil moist, not soggy wet. I normally find I need to mist the soil in the morning and then again in the evening.
Good Light is Crucial
If you are going to start seeds indoors, getting good light can be difficult. Often placing seedlings in a window (even a South facing one) doesn’t provide enough light. You will most likely need to supplement light with some full spectrum grow lights. These lights then need to be positioned about 3″ above the seed trays and need to be moved up as the seedlings grow. Although many people successfully grow seeds this way, I don’t. What I do is wait until the weather is warm enough (68-70 degrees temperature) that I can keep my seedlings outdoors during the day. I water my seedlings in the morning and then place them outside on a patio table where they get good full or strong afternoon sun. In the evening, I bring them back inside. Although this means I start my seedlings a bit later than some, it also means I don’t need to worry about an indoor lighting setup.
Read the Seed Packet Twice
Seed packets contain a great deal of information about when to start seeds, how deep to plant them, etc. Take the time to read and understand the information contained on the packet a few days before planting. Some root crops like carrots, radishes, and beets for example prefer to be directly sown in the ground. Some plants prefer to be started before the last frost, while others (like pumpkins) prefer to wait until the soil is warm.
Soak Big Seeds
I have found all large seeds like peas, squash, radishes, etc. can use a good bath. Place the amount of seeds you want to plant in a small cup and cover with water the day before you plan to plant. This soaking helps hydrate the seeds and make the outer coating a bit softer. And once again, make sure you label the containers.
I often see new gardeners grabbing handfuls of seed packets and buying those 72 cell seedling kits and I want to say, “wait.” Although seed starting is fairly straight forward, there is a little bit of a learning curve. Most seeds germinate fairly quickly so you have time to plant a couple one week and a few more the next. This also helps extend your harvest which is really handy for long growing seasons like we have here in California. You can also do some plants by seed and then buy a couple of starts at the nursery later.
If you have never tried starting your garden from seed, I hope you will give it a try. Becoming proficient at seed starting is a great gardening skill. Not only does it save you money but you will find more varieties available from seed than you can vegetable starts at the nursery. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
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