Nothing excites a gardener more than starting their own seedlings, especially at the end of winter when the itch to get out into the garden is at its peak. It’s a time when we can fantasize about how wonderful our gardens can be. There are many reasons why starting seedlings yourself is a huge benefit.
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For me, the greatest advantage is to save money. Most of the time, an entire seed packet costs as much as a single six cell tray of vegetables or annuals. As far as vegetables go, I save money in the grocery store by growing varieties that are the most expensive to buy like cherry tomatoes and basil. Another advantage is to get ahead of the harvesting season. Nothing is worse than having unripe fruit or vegetables rot on the vine because of frost. Buying seeds also gives us the opportunity to select new and unique varieties that are not grown by local growers. I find it exciting to grow and share something no one has ever seen before.
Starting seedlings yourself doesn’t have to be complicated. I have been successful with a very rudimentary setup. As long as you take care of the basics you are on your way to success. This is mainly concerning water, airflow and lighting. Even though home grown seedlings take some trial and error, I have some tips and tricks that will help you get ahead of the game.
Choosing a Container
Choosing the proper container for your seeds is important. It is better to use a smaller container for small seeds like lettuce. I like to use peat pellets because they are easy to transplant into a larger container to further mature before going out into the garden.
For large seeds like peas and beans, a deep, large container is better. In this case, there is no reason to transplant before going out into the garden. Large seeds have big roots and will push themselves out of a shallow container. Clay pots don’t work out well because they dry out far too quickly. It is nice to reuse containers to save a few dollars but proper sanitation is important.
Just wash with dish soap and let sit in water with 10% of bleach for about 15 minutes. Let dry completely before adding soil. Labeling containers is an art form that is often overlooked. Not only is it important to give a name to your seedlings but the date planted and the expected germinated date as well.
The germinating stage is critical for success. I like to plant two or three seeds per container with the intention of choosing the largest, healthiest one of the bunch. Pat down the soil gently because seeds need good soil contact to germinate whether they are surface planted or buried. Pay attention to the depth your seeds need to be planted. In general they need to be covered three times their width. Note that some seeds also need light or a certain temperature to germinate.
There are fancy heating pads to ensure enough warmth for germinating but I find the top of my fridge works well. Large seeds like peas and beans should be soaked in warm water until you see them crack before planting. Place plastic wrap on top of your containers until you seen green. The germination process needs constant moisture so don’t let them dry out. Keep a spray bottle on hand just in case. Anything stronger than a mist will move the seeds. Make sure to poke holes in the plastic wrap to avoid accidental rotting.
Prevent Damping Off
‘Damping off’ is a fungal disease and is the biggest problem that seedlings face. Suddenly, your seemingly healthy seedling will wilt for no reason. It happens because of poor air circulation and overcrowding. I like to use a small fan to aid in airflow. The wind should flow across the top of the seedlings, not directly on them. When your seedlings are about an inch tall it is time to thin to only one to avoid overcrowding. Make sure soil is moist before ripping out sensitive roots.
Always use new seed starting mix. Soil out of the garden is a sure way to bring disease to your seedlings. If you would like to make your own seed starting mix, it is simply half peat moss and half vermiculite or perlite. Another good tip is to sprinkle a little milled sphagnum moss or chicken grit when seeding to prevent moisture building up on stems. At first sign of damping off, remove affected seedlings. An organic method of treating damping off is a spray bottle of either chamomile tea or weak garlic tea.
Lighting is another big challenge to the novice propagator. Not enough light will produce leggy, weak plants. If you are lucky enough to have a big south facing window, it could be enough light. Your seedlings will need about light most of the day. Two 40 watt florescent tubes are enough light to keep seedlings short enough without burning them. The lights need to be only about two inches above the top of the seedlings. Set your banister up right at the beginning. Hang it on chains or ropes so raising it while seedlings grow will be a lot easier. Make sure to turn trays or pots a quarter turn everyday to ensure even lighting. Another tip to produce strong plants is to use a piece of cardboard to gently brush over seedlings once a day.
When your seedlings have their second set of leaves, it is time to transplant some into larger containers to mature. This is also the time to introduce a little fertilizer. Make sure whichever liquid fertilizer you choose, slowly incorporate it into watering; first time a quarter strength, then half strength or nitrogen burn can be a problem. I use an organic fertilizer at least on vegetable crops because it is comforting to know exactly what I’m putting into my body. This is also the time to start letting your seedlings dry out just a little between watering. This generates stronger, more vigorous roots.
The last step to growing indoor seedlings is to prepare them to be transplanted into your garden. If you take them directly from your warm home to the cool outdoors in spring there is a chance of shock and death. The process of slowly acclimating your seedlings to the outdoors is called ‘hardening off’. Some plants like leeks and cabbage can be placed out a little earlier but generally most plants like to go out at least two weeks after any sign of frost and no later than May long weekend.
It is best done over at least a three day period. I like to first put them in my garage or a sheltered area to avoid too much sun or cold winds for two or three hours. Then a shaded area outside for three or four hours and then in the full elements for five or six. If possible, try to bring down the temperature indoors slowly as well. It helps to have a thermometer with your seedlings from start to finish. If you are still worried about the chance of frost after planting outside, use a cloche or covering at night and take it off in the day time.
Starting seedlings indoors takes a fair bit of nursing but once you get the hang of it, the rewards are abundant. I love to share and trade my seedlings with family, friends and neighbors. There are some types of plants that prefer direct planting into the garden like radishes and carrots but for everything else have fun watching the miracle of a seemingly lifeless seed turn into life right in your own home.