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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.