Seed Starting Basics Also February 28th Class Cancelled

Do to unforeseen circumstances February 28th’s meeting and class have been cancelled.  For those of you needing basic information on starting seeds Homestead Lady has given me permission to share this here:

Seed Starting Basics

by Homestead Lady on February 19, 2013

seed startingI know this is all over the blogosphere right now (which is so awesome!!)  but I just wanted to add my two cents about the value of learning how to start seeds indoors in early spring and again in late summer – or really any time!

First, you’re saying, I’m busy and already know how to keep a garden, why do I need to learn how to start my own seeds indoors?  You are busy and you are already a very good gardener but here are a few things to consider:

  • Starting your own seed allows you to expand you garden palette.  There are some very fine nurseries with some very fine offerings but even the best don’t always provide that one variety you’re looking for.  If you’re interested in seed saving, especially, being able to pick and choose what variety you’ll grow out is vital.  Even those gardening with hybrids may get tired of the same five tomato options and the same three pepper varieties.
  • Starting your own seed can be economical but this comes with a caveat; after you’ve spent some initial capital, the yearly cost of seed and some kind of growing medium is minimal.  This becomes particularly true if you’re gardening on a large scale.  If you’re growing on a balcony, buying a few nursery starts probably won’t break you but if you’ve got a larger space, particularly if you’re feeding a lot of people, you may discover a large savings come planting season.
  • This skill is vital if you want to be as self sufficient as possible.  If you have a desire to be able to grow your own food from start to finish, seed starting is something you want to make sure you know how to do.  This skill will probably also lead you to learning how to save your own seed; the height of garden self sufficiency!  Over the years, the number of seed houses has shrunk, we’ve experienced numerous seed crop failures at home and abroad and GMOs keep turning up in various seed strains despite the concerted efforts of heirloom growers like Baker Creek and many others; in short, its time we took control of our own food and became responsible for protecting seed on this most basic level.  You can’t get any more homegrown than your backyard and its vital we know where our seed is coming from!

Well, then, how hard is this going to be?

  • If you’ve ever made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich AND kept a pet alive, you’ll be fine.  The following is a step by step guide to starting your seeds indoors; at the very end are some links that might be helpful.
  • Mostly I want you to know that you CAN do it and be successful at it; there will probably be some trial and error but isn’t that the essence of gardening?  Sometimes our failures are just as instructive as our successes!

Starting your seed indoors

  1. Gather your supplies:  Quality seeds, planting medium (“soil”), container with drainage at bottom and some kind of cover, water, labels for the trays, somewhere to put the seed tray DSCN0051(we got our rack at Costco.  Your containers don’t have to be fancy – one of my favorites are the spinach boxes from Costco with holes punched in the bottom.  As you see here, we also have old Tupperware, strawberry boxes and plastic/paper cups (I actually prefer these for potting up tomato seedlings because I save the collar of the cup and plant it with the tomato to protect against cutworms – nasty buggers!).  If you need to, wrap the bottom of particularly open boxes in aluminum foil (not a big fan of using this for much else) to prevent water leaking out in torrents.  If your lid isn’t solid but has air holes, you’ll need to DSCN0052wrap that at first to create your little greenhouse for germination; I like to use Press N Seal because, unlike Saran Wrap, its easy to use, seals easily and can be reused.  If you have these black grow trays, decide whether you want the individual cell packs or just flat trays.  I like open trays because, using a sharp knife, the seedlings are just as easy to get out and pot up as with the cell packs.  The cell packs break and the bottoms punch through pretty easily; plus, they just annoy me for some reason.  You can also make your own paper pots, use a soil blocker (those are awesome and I highly recommend them) and/or use any biodegradable pot or pellet start you want.  Figure out which one you like working with and use that.DSCN0053
  2. After the seeds germinate, you’ll also need a light source (a fluorescent shop light from someplace like Lowes works just fine).  If the air circulation in your designated spot isn’t great, you may need a small fan, too.  You will probably want some kind of heat mat or Christmas light set up underneath your seed trays to increase both the amount of seed that germinates and how quickly the seeds germinate.  Remember what I said about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich?  Once you get all your ingredients, the genius is in the mix – if you properly mix your peanut butter and jelly before you put it on your bread, there’s less mess and your lunch is a happy event; skip that step and you end up with jelly on your tie.  Get all your ducks in a row and take time with your set up; there’s a proper mix you’re going for here.  Once you get the foundation laid, seed starting is a lot easier do successfully.
  3. DSCN0058Mix you planting medium with enough water to look like brownie batter – not so wet you can squeeze water out of a handful but not so dry you have pockets where there’s no water at all.  All seed starting literature will tell you to use a soil-less medium that you can purchase fairly easily at most garden centers and nurseries; these consist mostly of peat moss.  The reason for using this medium is to prevent disease; potting mixes and regular garden soil usually play host to a myriad of bacterias and pathogens that might be relatively harmless to a transplant or full grown plant but that can wipe out a whole tray of seedlings.  I use soil-less medium all the time but also occasionally use a quality potting soil that includes peat moss.  Quite frankly, I don’t want to rely on some specialized product that I’m forced to purchase all the time.  If all you have is garden soil and you’re worried about disease, you can heat your soil in your oven on a cookie sheet to kill the gunk.  I don’t have space in my garden for plants that have to be babied overly much so I don’t worry about it.  I make sure my growing medium is as clean as I can make it that year, I make sure I keep good air circulation while my seedlings grow and I make sure to give them some nice fish emulsion every now and then and everything works out just fine.
  4. DSCN0055Pat your soil into your container; don’t mash it, just pat it politely in and read your seed packet to figure out how deep to plant your seed.  Some need light to germinate and so you’ll simply scatter the seed on top of the soil and others need to be planted at a certain depth.  Once your seed is in, sprinkle the surface with organic cinnamon powder to prevent damping off (a fungal problem that can attack emerging seedlings and looks a lot like spider webs – most people use soil-less medium to prevent damping off since once you have it, its hard to get rid of).  Then cover your container with either a lid or DSCN0060with the Press N Seal or whatever you have on hand.  Bear in mind that some seeds need light to germinate (so make sure your lid is clear) and some need dark to germinate (so make sure your lid isn’t transparent).  The reason to cover your damp seedbed at this point it to keep the moisture and heat inside the tray to encourage germination – like a little greenhouse.
  5. DSCN0035Place your newly planted trays on your heat mat, on your rack and monitor over the next few days.  Some seeds take a few days to pop up (lettuce) and other can take many weeks (a lot of perennial flowers and herbs can take this long).  Some may surprise you – I planted chocolate daisies this year and the packet said to be prepared to wait for several weeks before germination but they popped up after only four days!  Once your seedlings begin to emerge from the soil, remove the cover to expose the seed trays to air circulation to prevent disease and encourage the seedlings to start getting taller and stronger.
  6. Now’s the time to turn on your lights!  Set up your lights so that they’re adjustable, up and down.  While your seedlings are just popping up and tiny, keep those lights right over but not touching their heads; as they grow, pull up the lights to keep the seedlings moving straight up.  If your lights are too high above your seed babies, they’ll get leggy, weak and fall over in disgrace.DSCN0062
  7. Once your seedlings have developed their first and/or second set of true leaves, you can transplant them.  You’ll want to do this as soon as you can so that the roots have more room to grow in a larger container.  That larger container can just be a plastic cup – whatever, it just needs to be bigger.   When transplanting, be sure to lift your seedlings by their leaves and not their stems; leaves will recover if you damage them, stems once pinched, die.  No forgiveness.
  8. How long your seedlings stay in your indoor nursery just depends on the weather and when your life allows you to get them planted.  Remember the part about keeping a pet alive?  Yeah, now’s the time to tap into those skills.  Caring for baby plants is like caring for baby anything – they need constant water and food, light, air and space.  You’ll want to run your hand over them once a day to toughen up their stems and interact with them.  Make sure you speak or sing or visit with them in some way every day; no kidding, but they’ve done studies on this and you will enjoy greater success if you’ll take a minute to be nice to your plants.  I could give you a long lecture on energy and light and positive/negative auras but I’ll resist.
  9. tomato transplantBefore you plant your babies outside, you’ll need to slowly acclimate them to outdoor conditions.  This is usually where I mess up because it requires remembering details.  You’ll need to put them out in the sun for an hour or two one day and then a little longer the next day.  You have to make sure its not too hot and not too cold and keep the babies hydrated.  Again, I don’t have time for sissies and so often what happens is that I put my seedlings out in the sun the first day and bring them in when I remember them.  By day two, I’m bored with the process and leave them out all day and, if it’s not too cold, I’ll just put them in a safe place outside overnight or shove them in the garage.  The next day I’m usually putting them in the ground.  I do lose a few now and then (one time the turkeys got a whole flat of onions because I simply forgot they were out!) but this lazy system works for me just fine; I do feel compelled to say, do as I say, not as I do.
  10. Remember, once you get really going with your seed starting, you’ll have new babies coming up behind older seedlings and you’ll need to make space and time for tending them all.  If this is your first or second year starting seed indoors, I recommend you only start with a few varieties.  Start some onions or lettuces for cool season crops; start some tomatoes and peppers for warmer season gratification.  Don’t take on too much your first few times; make sure you grow something you love to eat.

Newly planted seed tray with cinnamon on top.

Newly planted seed tray with cinnamon on top.

Cell pack tray – not my favorite but serviceable.

Our very not-fancy seed starting set up in the laundry room - still sproting a pumpkin and winter coats.

Our very not-fancy seed starting set up in the laundry room – still sporting a pumpkin and winter coats.

Some handy links for more information: