Seed Starting Basics

Give your garden a jump-start this year by starting seeds indoors.

There comes a day in every gardener’s life when the notion of starting plants from seeds takes root. Usually, it’s a restless winter day… a day on which you’ve paged through the colorful pages of a seed catalog and marveled at the offerings. And yet, if you’ve never done it before, you may hesitate, wondering if the project is too complicated or difficult.

Good news! Seed starting is amazingly easy, consumes little time, energy and money, and brings you a whole new level of gardening satisfaction. It’s an adventure that, once begun, leads you to a brand-new sense of pride and joy in the plants you grow.

The Basics of Seed Starting

If you have been buying mainstream seedlings down at your garden center each spring, mail-order seed offerings are a real eye-opener. There are dozens, indeed, hundreds of varieties to explore. The only difference is you’ll be raising them! Fans of seed starting often tout how much money they save. True, seed packets tend to be fairly inexpensive compared to bedding plants, which have time, effort and storage factored into their pricing. And seeds can lead to a lot of small plants (you might even make a little money on the side if you decided to sell the surplus).

The actual truth: In the end, you might not save a significant amount of money starting your own plants from seeds, simply because this hobby is addictive. As your confidence and expertise grow, you may end up plowing any saved money back into buying more seed packets. There are so many interesting varieties to try!

Still looking for an excellent reason to raise your own plants? By giving them a little TLC from seed to planting, you know the seedlings are well rooted because you’ve seen them grow day to day and tended to their needs. The seed-lings will be naturally husky if you raise them in good soil at the proper distance from a light source and you don’t hurry them along with chemicals. You’ll also know they’re healthy because the soil-borne diseases that sometimes plague big operations are easily prevented at home.

Smart Shopping with Seeds

As with any other garden purchase, you need to shop wisely so you’ll enjoy success down the line. Make a wish list by flagging catalog pages with sticky notes or scraps of paper. Then return to the beginning and consider each choice one by one, paying particular attention to two important dates (this information often appears on the back of seed packets, too). First, know when to start the seeds indoors based on your last spring frost. Second, you should know how long it takes from seed planting until the time it produces flowers or fruit. This helps you decide if the plant is suited for your climate and if it must be started indoors for longest bloom and greatest productivity once moved outdoors.

Starting seeds too early will force you to keep husky or unwieldy seedlings happy indoors too long. On the other hand, if you start something too late, you will be able to plant it, but it’s likely to produce flowers or fruit later than usual, making the plant more vulnerable to summer’s heat or an early frost.

Getting Started with Seeds

Having done the necessary counting-backward math to determine when you want to start your seeds, you may discover you need to place your order right away! Seed companies get very busy in winter and early spring and fill orders on a first-come first-served basis. I recommend ordering spring seeds as early as you can for the most selection. While you’re waiting for your packets to arrive:

Prepare a spot to grow them. In milder climates, gardeners are able to sow seeds in a cold frame or greenhouse, if they have one. The rest of us have to make do indoors.

The best spot to grow seeds is in an area out of the path of household traffic. You won’t want people bumping into your tender sprouts, or curious pets coming around. It should also be a spot that is warm and out of drafts. A basement, sunporch or spare room are all good options. Some people even raise seeds on the tops of dressers, cabinets or refrigerators! Think I’m kidding? The top of the refrigerator is an excellent place to grow seedlings because it generates a little warmth. Many seeds germinate better with some heat. You could even place your seed containers on top of a radiator, so long as the heat source is not too hot and is consistent.

Provide sufficient light. Some seeds germinate under a thin layer of soil mix, some are pressed lightly right on top, but in all cases the seedlings that sprout will require between 12 and 16 hours of light per day. Sunlight from a window is not at all ideal. It’s pale and limited in late winter and early spring. To make it work, you’ll need artificial light. Fluorescent is best, and a timer at the outlet will help you regulate the hours it is shining on your baby plants. Given these two critical requirements – location and light – some gardeners purchase a seed-starting setup for their house, while others make their own.

Time To Start Planting

Planting seeds indoors is not as hard as you think if you keep these simple tips in mind…

Begin with damp (but not drenched) sterile seed-starting mix, filling containers about three-fourths full. Tamp the surface flat and level with the flat of your hand or a small piece of wood before sowing.

Read the backs of seed packets for the information you need about sowing depth (or whether the seeds need light to germinate). The backs of seed packets have a wealth of important information, such as how far apart to sow the seeds, how many days they usually take to germinate and when to plant outdoors. Sow carefully by hand. A pencil tip can be a very helpful tool when placing small seeds.

Don’t sow too many seeds. This can lead to a forest of seedlings growing too thickly for you to thin without damaging them. Make little furrows if you’re using flats, spacing seeds up to an inch apart (closer if they are tiny seeds).

Cover seeds with plastic. Do this the very day you plant. This holds in warmth and humidity, giving the seeds the best chance of absorbing moisture and getting going. Don’t seal tightly, though. That causes condensed water to drip back down onto the mix, making things too soggy.

Check on the seeds daily. The planting mix must not dry out, or seeds’ growth will immediately halt. The best way to keep seedlings evenly, consistently moist is with bottom watering. Just set the container into a few inches of water (in the sink or in a tray) and let it wick up what water it needs before returning the container to its designated spot.

Seedling Care

It usually takes a week or two for the first little leaves to poke up their heads. But what a thrill it is to see them! Once they begin to sprout:

Snip away extras. When the first true leaves appear, use sharp scissors to snip some weaker seedlings right at soil level. The properly spared survivors gain better air circulation, important for their health, and their roots won’t have to compete for precious nutritional resources.

Water from above with a fine spray as the seedlings grow bigger. The plastic covering can be shifted on and off as your developing plants need ventilation. After a while, they’ll be too tall and you’ll have to remove it completely.

Fertilize seedlings after they germinate with a diluted flowering houseplant fertilizer (about 50 percent of the recommended dilution). Do this about every 2 weeks or less until you begin “hardening off” outdoors. When seedlings are husky, well-rooted (tug gently on the leaves, never the stem, to check) and several inches high, it’s time to get them ready for outdoor life.

In their original containers or transplanted into new individual pots, they may be moved outside in late spring to a sheltered spot out of the sun. Bring them indoors or cover them on chilly nights or if a frost threatens. A few days or a week of gradually introducing them to the sun and outdoors makes them much better prepared for life in your garden.

Seed-starting Lingo

Damping off: This refers to a fungal disease that attacks developing seedlings, causing them to shrivel and die right at soil level. The fungi thrive in stagnant air and high humidity. The best ways to prevent this problem are to use clean containers and sterile mix and to monitor your seedlings, removing the plastic covering if the environment is too damp and…not to overwater! Seedlings affected by damping off must be discarded; start over with a more sterile, less humid setup.

Pricking off: Once seedlings are a few inches high, they may start to outgrow their quarters. They need to be carefully lifted out or “pricked off.” Depending on how little they are and how closely you sowed, you can use your fingers, tweezers, a fork or a small stick. Gingerly tease interwoven roots apart. Move each plant carefully to its own pot, where it will enjoy more root room and better air circulation.

Hardening off: After the threat of frost has passed, it’s time to get your babies ready for outdoor life in the garden. Move your seedlings outside to an area sheltered from the sun and wind. Bring them indoors or cover on chilly nights or if frost threatens. Stop fertilizing your plants and gradually increase the amount of sun they receive each day for a week or so. They should be ready to place into the garden once the soil is slightly dry rather than waterlogged.

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