Starting vegetable and flower seeds indoors

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Let’s do a little seed-starting 401, shall we? Starting vegetable and flower seeds indoors isn’t as hard as you might think. I was once intimidated by the process. So, I’m going to break down how I started my own seeds this year, and I hope it helps. If you like this information and want more, see my book, The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff, available at your local independent bookstore, amazon and most Barnes & Noble stores. If you don’t see it, ask them. Your request is like a vote in the yes column, and they’ll order more than one copy for their shelves.

Now, let’s roll.

    1. I’m not as organized as you might think. The seeds in the basket are ones I’ve already planted this year. The ones in my homemade box are separated only by season. Could you do a better job? You bet, but this works for me.

      I'm not as organized as you might think.

      I’m not as organized as you might think.

    2. Start with good, organic potting soil. Miracle-Gro potting soils–for the most part–are neither organic, nor particularly good. Miracle-Gro is in bed with Monsanto, and is now testing a genetically modified Kentucky Bluegrass resistant to RoundUp. If you don’t have a problem with that, uhm, okay. We’ll talk later. I usually buy my potting soil from my local nursery. They make their own mix with locally-sourced ingredients. You can also use potting soil specifically made for seed starting. It’s a finer, sifted soil, but I find it washes away when I water. One way to stop this is to water from the bottom, but I don’t have the space to do that. I’m using my kitchen sink for watering. Sanctuary Soil sent me some Empire Builder Indoor-Outdoor Growers Mix, and I’m using it for this project. I wish I could buy it locally. Still, if you live where they sell it, it’s wonderful stuff.

      Recycled containers with Empire Builder potting soil

      Recycled containers with Empire Builder potting soil. Why I have the potting soil upside down in this picture, I don’t know. I just dove in and began planting without thinking about the photos.

    3. As for containers, you can use recycled items like the ones in the foreground of the photo, above. I really like the to-go containers from Pei Wei, and now, I don’t feel guilty because I reuse them again and again. Also, if you buy rotisserie chicken in the supermarket, these make great seed-starting containers too. If I’m using new seed trays, I buy the Pro-Hex ones also shown above. Their cells are deeper than standard trays. This is good for plant roots and for tags. I must break the tags when I’m planting because they won’t fit under the clear cover otherwise. The less breakage, the more information I can put on the tags.

      Don't forget to tag and label your seed trays and other containers.

      Don’t forget to tag and label your seed trays and other containers. You will kick yourself if you don’t.

    4. About tags, don’t forget to use them. One the worst mistakes I ever made was thinking I would remember what I planted in these little cells. Well, that didn’t work. Instead, I ended up with a mess of tomato plants that I couldn’t identify until they had fruit. My garden was a higgledy-piggledy mess that summer. Since I use a lot of heirloom tomatoes, peppers and eggplant with colorful names, I write as much info as I can get on the tag. Sure, I can go back and look at the package, but that’s an extra step.

      Water mix before you plant seeds.

      Water mix before you plant seeds.

    5. Place your potting soil in the container and wet it down before you begin. This helps seeds “stick” to the soil. Plus, you’ll find any air pockets you have. Seed trays are notorious for air pockets.

      Renee's Garden trio seed packets with colored seeds.

      Renee’s Garden three variety seed packets with colored seeds.

    6. Seeds, glorious seeds. If you have a small garden, may I suggest some of these trio packages of seeds from Renee’s Garden? I bought the Asian and Italian eggplant trios. Inside, you’ll find three colors of seed with an identification chart on the back of the seed packet. In the book, I explain all the juicy details seed packets contain. I separated the seeds, tagged the spots I wanted to use and sowed two rows of each variety. I really like eggplant. I put all of the eggplant seeds on one tray because they will grow to the same height. This is important after the seeds begin to grow. It makes your life easier. Eggplant especially wants heat mats to germinate. I use heat mats for all of my heat-loving vegetable seeds, and you can find them locally or on amazon. To pick up the seeds more easily, wet your finger and touch the seed you want.

      Pink seed on finger.

      Pink seed on finger.

    7. You can see the seeds planted below. You push the seeds down into the soil with your finger–the larger the seed, the deeper it’s planted. On the recycled containers, I scattered seed across the top and covered them with soil. Later, I’ll prick them out and place them in bigger pots. For those, I wrote labels and put them on the side of the containers.
    8. Top the seeds with a bit more soil. Once the plants grow a little, and I transplant them to a bigger home before going outside, I will put grit on top. It helps keep the soil moist and stops those nasty little fruit gnats that bug us so much. What kind of grit you use depends upon where you live. I just use chicken grit I get at the feed store.

      Pink and green seeds planted in seed tray cells.

      Pink and green seeds planted in seed tray cells.

    9. Water everyone again and top them with clear plastic lids or Glad Press’n Seal Food Wrap. In a few days, your seeds will spring into action, and you can remove the plastic. I usually wait until plants have a real set of leaves. The first two “leaves” are cotyledon and are part of the embryo of the seed. Interesting, isn’t it? That’s how I got into botany in college. I also loosen the wrap as plants grow so that it doesn’t squish them.
    10. Place seed trays or recycled containers under lights, or in a south-facing window. Even with the window, you may find they become leggy. I don’t have a south-facing window anywhere but in my bathroom so I use cool and warm spectrum fluorescent light bulbs. I buy these at my hardware store. You can also buy pricey grow lights, but they aren’t a requirement. If growing in a window, turn your plants every day so they will grow straight and strong.
Heat mats, lights and covered seedlings.

Heat mats, lights and covered seedlings.

That’s all there is to seed starting. If you live in the southern part of the U.S., the end of February or first week of March is the time to get started. For my northern friends, look to your cooperative extension service for times in your area.

I’m planting my flower seeds next. They take a bit more understanding and practice. Read their seed packets. Some like light to germinate which means you put them on top of the soil. Others have special heat requirements, and some like to be started outside. For more extensive information on seed starting especially with flowers, Nan Ondra’s blog, Hayefield, has excellent information.

A garden party book launch for the 20-30 Something Garden Guide

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ST LYNN'S 20-30 Something CoverMaybe you haven’t heard, but my book,The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff, comes out today!!!

Let’s throw confetti and blow our party horns! For the book launch, we’re having a huge garden party, and the prizes are all for you. I wrote this book because I think 20-30 Somethings want to garden. They just don’t know where to start. They know good food when they see it, but so many think gardening requires a large space and budget. You don’t have to move to the country to garden. You just need a garden coach.

Trust me, you can grow a lot of vegetables, flowers and herbs in a few beds or even in containers on your balcony. And, it won’t take that much of a time investment.

If you don’t have any experience, don’t worry. Gardening may look mysterious, but it’s simply a skill like cooking, crafting or baking that must be learned. The magic happens after you plant that seed. Imagine me on the sidelines cheering for you from every page. Click through and look at the book to see if it’s right for you. I want to give you the tools to garden effectively along with the ability to slow down and ponder. I hope by writing this book I’ll plant seeds because without gardeners like you, we won’t have nearly as much beauty in our world.

Oh, and one more thing, this book is for anyone who is a novice gardener, no matter what our age is. We are all 20-30 Somethings in our hearts anyway.

I’d love to go along with you on your garden journey, and I’m here to answer questions every step of the way. Please feel free to comment here or email me at You can also visit me over at Red Dirt Ramblings.

You’ve heard enough from me. I want you to know The 20-30 Something Garden Guide through twelve of my blogger friends, and they have prizes galore for you. To enter, simply leave a comment on the individual blogs. This giveaway runs through February 23 at Midnight, and it is only open to citizens of the continental United States. We’ll announce the winners on Monday, February 24. We have twelve wonderful bloggers from all over the U.S. just waiting to hear from you. Without further ado, here they are:

Shawna Coronado’s website — a gift certificate to High Country Gardens for a Summer Dreams Garden.

Whitney Curtis at The Curtis Casa — David Austin Rose, ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent’ and Authentic Haven Brand Moo Poo Tea.

Colleen Dieter at Red Wheelbarrow Plants — Garden Girl shorts and Fiskars PowerGear 18” loppers.

Robin Haglund at Garden Mentors — Buckaroo Brand Worm Castings, a hula planter and Empire Soil Builder, from Sanctuary Soil.

Rachel Hough at The Domestic Artiste — Fiskars Tools, two sets of loppers, one is the PowerGear Lopper 32” and the other Power-Lever 28”.

Niki Jabbour at Niki Jabbour, The Year Round Veggie Gardener.

Carmen Johnston at Carmen Johnston Gardens — Garden Girl pants with knee pads and a David Austin rose, ‘The Alnwick Rose’ catalog link for ordering bare root roses.

Carol Michel at May Dreams Gardens — DeWit Tool kit and Botanical Interests Organic Heirloom Seed Bank Collection. 

Pam Penick at Digging — Three small Bee Preservers,

Jenny Peterson and J. Peterson Garden Design — is giving away a two-part prize from the Seedkeeper Company, a Seedkeeper Deluxe and Burlap Girdle(s).

Genevieve Schmidt at North Coast Gardening — Annie’s Annuals gift certificate and Keira Watering Cans.

Marie Wreath at the (Not Always) Lazy W Ranch — Longfield Gardens tulips & daffodils

A rooster in a friend's garden keeps watch over the garden. You should too.

A clean garden is a happy one

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A rooster in a friend's garden keeps watch over the garden. You should too.

A rooster in a friend’s garden keeps watch over the garden. You should too.

Walk the walk each day.

Tobacco horn worms can be hand picked from plants. However, keep in mind that these worms turn into  sphinx moths later. It's always a tradeoff in the garden, isn't it?

Tobacco horn worms can be hand picked from plants. However, keep in mind that these worms turn into sphinx moths later. It’s always a tradeoff in the garden, isn’t it?

Garden cleanliness is one way to keep disease at bay. Take a walk in your garden each morning or evening. You will spot trouble before it starts, and if trouble does occur, you can stop it sooner. Look for diseased plants and chewing or sucking insects. Hand pick any little beasties you find on your plants and toss them into a can of soapy water. If you’re squeamish, wear pliable gloves. The tobacco horn worm above will later turn into a sphinx moth. However, I usually pick these and feed them to my chickens anyway because the worm will destroy my tomato plant before it has a chance to do its thing. See the bite this worm took out of the green tomato on the left? Tomato hornworms, Manduca quinquemaculata, are not the same as Tobacco hornworms, Manduca sexta, but they do have the same appetite for tomatoes and other plants in the nightshade family. You can tell the difference by look at their markings and their “horns.” Tobacco hornworms have diagonal markings and a reddish horn, while tomato hornworms have a blue-black horn and v-shaped markings. Both give me the creeps quite frankly, and I’m glad several species of wasp find them tasty.

Keep tools clean and shiny.

Pruning a rose cane. Clean tools stop disease.

Pruning a rose cane. Clean tools stop disease.

Between pruning jobs, dip pruners in rubbing alcohol or Lysol to prevent disease from spreading from plant to plant. If you don’t want to dip, carry a spray bottle of alcohol with you and spritz your tools instead. Don’t use bleach because it corrodes many tools and is harder on plants. Alcohol works just as well. At the end of the gardening season, clean, sharpen and oil all of your tools before storing. It’s also a good time to repaint any handles with spray paint. Take care of your tools, and they will last a long time. It’s a nice job on a clear, fall day.

Clear away garden debris.

I think tomatoes are beautiful.

I think tomatoes are beautiful.

Between plantings and at season’s end, clear away any dropped leaves or other debris. If you notice plants with diseased leaves or stem–tomatoes come to mind–snap off or prune the diseased section and dispose of the material somewhere other than your compost pile. This will help stop many diseases from consuming your entire plant.

Although you can compost diseased material if your compost pile temperature is 160˚F or above, only a well-maintained pile will reach that number consistently. So, I don’t suggest you ever compost diseased plant material. It’s just not worth the risk.