Seed Starting 101

As we talked about Monday, cold weather gardening season is fast approaching and it’s nearly time to start those semi-hardy seeds indoors.  It’s not a difficult task really; I dove into seed starting when Petunia was a toddler and with few exceptions, have had great success.  I have learned a few lessons the hard way, though, and I want to share them with you to save YOU the frustrations!

My Sweet Petunia, age 3, watering the seedlings!

Necessary Equipment

If you’ve shopped the seed catalogs, you’ll quickly notice that you can spend a boatload of money on equipment before you sprout the first seed….but that is totally unnecessary!  People have been starting seeds for thousands of years without the advantages of elaborate equipment.   It honestly doesn’t take much to start seedlings; at minimum you need a good loamy potting mixture, a container with some sort of drainage and heat/light.  That’s it.  How you go about it is entirely up to you and over the years, I’ve tried some pretty unique ideas to save money on starting seedlings.

  • Containers can be anything that will hold soil and allow the excess water to drain.  Egg cartons work great, provided they’re the foamy variety.  (The cardboard cartons dissolve into mush after a couple of waterings.)   Poke holes in the bottom of each cup and set the egg carton onto a cookie sheet to allow drainage.
  • Warming the soil can be achieved in many different ways.  You can set your sown seeds over a heating vent, on top of the fridge, near a woodstove or, what I found effective, was to sit them on top of the trunklines in the furnace room.  It provided consistent, gentle warmth to help the seeds sprout quickly.   Last year, however, I took the plunge and purchased a grow mat and had great success with it.
  • Light, especially warm light, is crucial.  A shop light with grow bulbs work just fine, as will a south/southwest-facing window.
  • Quality potting mix is a must.  You need a light, loamy mix of peat, compost and perlite to allow the delicate seedlings to sprout.  Don’t go dig up some garden dirt; you’ll end up with rotten, moldy seeds.

Planting Tips

Now that you’ve collected your necessary items, let me share a few tips to help ensure your experience is a success!

  • Be sure to read the seed packaging carefully.  Different seeds have different requirements.  Some need a bit of light to sprout, some prefer to be covered and exclude light.  Familiarize yourself with your varieties before you begin dropping seeds willy-nilly!

  •  Light, loamy potting mix is initially resistant to absorbing water, so fill up your containers with pottin mix and water it well, allowing the soil to become saturated BEFORE you sow your seeds.  If you don’t, you can easily wash out your seed.
  • Plant more seeds than you think you’ll need because life happens.  Occasionally you’ll purchase seed stock with poor germination rates.  Sometimes you forget to water.  Sometimes your children are a little TOO eager and overwater.  I try to plant at least 50% more than I anticipate needing.  You can always find someone to share extra seedlings with!
  • Label each container with popsicle sticks, masking tape or whatever you have laying around!  Don’t trust your memory on this one!

  • Cover your containers to form a “greenhouse” to encourage germination.  A simple piece of plastic wrap can make all the difference!
  • Keep the potting mix slightly damp while you anxiously wait for those first seeds to sprout.  A few spritzes from a spray bottle each day will provide enough moisture initially, especially if you use plastic to create a “greenhouse”.
  • After the seedlings have developed their first set of “true leaves” (see picture!) and have a bit of height and size on them, you can allow the soil to dry out between waterings.  I don’t mean parched and cracked, just dry.  Many species of veggies can’t stand to have their feet wet 24/7, so watch the soil carefully and water accordingly.

  • Thin them out.  This is painful, I know, but for the biggest, most productive plants, you have to thin out the competition.  As the seedlings grow larger and develop 2 sets of true leaves, pull out the smaller, less hardy plants.  Your garden will thank you.

So that’s about the long and short of seed starting.  Remember you need quality potting mix, something to contain the mix and a source of heat/light.  If you can come up with some combination of those 3-4 things, you can easily and successfully start your own seedlings year after year and save a boatload of money!

Have you ever tried starting your own seeds before?