It’s that time of year: seed catalog time! Noelle offered a few of her favorites a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been poring over mine as well. But I have to admit – starting seeds is something that I often find overwhelming. I’m mostly fond of wildflower seeds, which you can just fling into your garden and allow to do their own thing. But there are amazing varieties of flowers and veggies in catalogs that you won’t find for sale at your local nursery, so learning to start seeds is a valuable skill, and one that can keep you going in those dull winter months where the only gardening you would otherwise do is the occasional watering of the spider plant hanging in your kitchen window.
For the best tips for beginners, I went to the Gardening forum in the Birds & Blooms Community, and asked them what they would have wanted to know when they were getting started. They had plenty of answers to help even the most apprehensive seed-starting newbie, including a whole thread showing their various methods and setups. Here are some of their top tips.
Start out simple. Steve232_NC says, “start cheap and don’t try to do too much your first time.” Although the seed catalogs will be full of tempting offers, not all are good for first-timers. Community member Charlene (plantdoctorzn4) recommends, “Buy seeds that are rated for the beginner gardener. If you order from websites, many of them list beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Trying a seed that is too difficult for your ability will discourage you from ever starting any again.”
Start out right. You can start a lot of seeds in a small space, but make sure you know their requirements first. Charlene says, “Follow the package instructions on how to sow. Some seeds need light to germinate (that means to barely cover the seed, or not cover it at all) while others require dark….bury the seed, but not too deep!” The type of soil matters too, as Steve232_NC notes: “Be sure to use seed starting mix for planting your seeds. Later you can transplant them to your favorite potting soil.” Make things easier on yourself by investing in a seed-starting kit. I’ve had good luck in recent years with the somewhat pricey Park Seed Bio Dome kits, but there are plenty of inexpensive options available at nurseries and home improvement stores.
Provide light. One of the most important factors to deal with is how you will provide the light your seeds need to germinate and grow. Charlene advises, “Once the seed has germinated make sure that it receives 12 hrs of light daily – artificial light or direct light like a south window. If you do use a south window, it is necessary to turn them once daily because they start reaching for the light and get spindly it you dont.” For many, it’s easier to invest in some grow lights, available at your local nursery, and then improvise. Community member Gayle (cove2700) notes, “Doesn’t have to be an expensive set up. A lot of us started out with lights balanced across books or paint cans or whatever. You need to make sure that the seedlings are no more than a couple inches from the lights. too far away from the light & they will stretch for it & get spindly.” This was one of her first set-ups:
Add water. The second important factor to consider is watering. Seeds and seedlings don’t do all that well with watering from the top. Linda Z (narnian) says, “The most important thing I learned (for me) was to bottom water - set the trays that the seedlings are in into a bigger tray without holes, and pour water in it. This prevents damping off, where the little seedlings get a fungus and die.” She also suggests running a fan in the room to help keep the soil surface dry and the air circulating.
Don’t transplant too soon. Charlene warns, “When a seed germinates, its first 2 leaves often don’t resemble their true leaves at all. I usually transplant when they have 4 to 6 leaves.” Karen (luvmyb_b) agrees: ” When I first began seed starting, I didn’t realize the first two leaves that show up aren’t their true leaves. A beginner really should be told about this.” You want to give your new seedlings room to stretch their roots, but once again, you don’t need a fancy setup. Leroy (hopscotch) says, “As the seedlings get large enough, I transplant them into styrofam cups, Each cup is marked with a code so I know what is in them. For instance, C means Coleus, P means Pentas, RZ means Red Zinnia, and so on.”
Learn to “harden off”. As the seedlings get bigger and the weather gets warmer, you may be tempted to stick your new plants right into the soil. But there’s an important step you don’t want to skip, called “hardening off.” Charlene explains, “Harden off means to slowly introduce them to real sun, wind, and other elements that they will need to endure to live outdoors.” Leroy uses this method: “As the weather got warmer, the flats with all the cups and their seedlings went out onto the back deck. They started out there in the shade to get them used to the brighter light and different temperatures. I’ve had to move them inside a few times because of frost on a few nights. Gradually, those that grow in sun were moved out further into the sun and finally all the way there.”
Other Great Tips:
- wilderness_NY_Z4 offers, “I think planning is the key to success. Don’t start too big or you will be overwhelmed. Be sure you start some seed that are very easy to grow. When I am getting discouraged with the way things are going I usually start a few marigolds as I know they will start and grow fast. It lifts my spirits and confidence.” I completely agree; see my previous posts on starting sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias. She also recommends keeping a journal documenting your dates started, method used, germination date, and final product. This will help you in years ahead.
- MDGreenery says, “I think labeling your seedlings is pretty important. It may seem like an obvious thing to do but often gets overlooked; I have been guilty of this myself, on more than one occasion. When I do remember to use my label sticks & markers; I usually include the plant’s name and the date I planted the seed on the label.”
- Gayle (cove2700) reminds you stick with it. “Do not be frustrated & give up if something doesn’t grow. It happens to everybody. Just jump back in and try again. The same thing doesn’t always work for everybody so if one way doesn’t work out for you try another. It’s just a matter of getting the basics and go from there.”
Still have questions or feeling a little apprehensive? Come ask these experts (and many more) your questions directly. Our Gardening forum is very active, and our Community members would love to help you get the “seed-starting addiction”! Click here to visit the Gardening forum and join in.