Gardening’s Not All Work!
One of the most rewarding pursuits as a gardener is starting your own plants from seeds. The potential for beauty, fruitfulness and aroma locked up in each tiny seed is awesome. However, growing your plants from seeds is not always a sure thing, or an easy task.
Seed Starting Lessons
I grew up in the late ’40’s and ’50’s, on a small mixed farm. All eight of us children participated in the chores, from feeding chickens and pigs, to milking the cows and working in the gardens.
Every year my mother planted an acre of vegetable garden. In mid-March she began seed starting indoors, usually dozens of tomato plants, cabbages, onions, lettuce and peppers. From her I learned how to be successful at seed starting.
She first baked soil in the oven of the wood stove to kill pathogens, and used it to plant seeds in recycled tin cans and wooden flats. Today we have easy access to clean weed and pathogen free seed starting soil.
Our sun porch just outside the kitchen held racks of tomato, pepper and onion starts. In mid-May, once the chance of frost was gone, we moved them all to the garden and planted carrots, potatoes, celery, cauliflower, peas, beans, corn and lettuce. And the real work began.
Here are ten techniques and tips to get your seeds and new seedlings off to a good start this spring.
1. Be a record keeper.
Record where and when you bought your seeds. Record when you plant the seeds, the date they actually germinate, and the success rate. Keep a record of how long it takes for the seedlings to be ready to transplant. Note what went right or wrong with your timing. These observations will make your next year’s tasks much easier.
2. Store seeds properly.
If you have stored your seeds properly, they may be viable much longer. To keep them dormant, seeds should be stored in a cool dark place with low humidity. Make sure you label all your seeds, with name, source, and year.
3. Choose wide flat containers. Plastics are preferable, since they retain moisture better than clay or wood. A wide flat container will give you more room to space the seeds so the seedlings won’t be overcrowded. Plants that dislike root disturbance can be planted into small individual containers. No matter what container you use, make sure it is clean, the soil is pathogen-free and has good drainage.
4. Tamp down the seeds. Most seeds should be covered with soil to the depth of twice the seed diameter. Some tiny seeds, or ones that need light to germinate – lettuce is an example – should lie directly on the soil surface. Either way, the seeds need firm contact with moist soil to germinate. You can use the bottom of a glass or your hand to gently tamp them down.
5. Provide drainage and air flow. The fungus infection known as damping off is usually a result of too much moisture and poor air circulation. These two tips can prevent this problem: sprinkle a fine grit or dry sphagnum on the surface to keep the emerging shoots dry and use a small fan on low to circulate air around the seedlings.
6. Keep moisture level constant. The best way to keep the moisture content of the soil constant is to secure plastic wrap or a clear plastic bag over the freshly seeded pots. Alternatively, use a germination tray with a clear plastic cover. Check daily for moisture and germination, and when the seeds have germinated, remove the covering. Since top watering can disturb emerging seedlings, hydrate by placing the entire pot in a couple of inches of warm water so the planting medium wicks moisture upwards. If this isn’t an option use a fine mist spray.
7. Keep your seeds warm. Most seeds need a temperature of around 70˚F degrees to germinate. If you don’t have a warm spot, use a space heater or a heating pad beneath the seeded trays. Special heating pads designed for germinating are available at most garden centers. Keep an eye on moisture levels to ensure the seed containers don’t dry out.
8. Rotate your seedlings. Once your seeds have germinated, place the containers in a sunny south-facing window and turn the container a quarter turn each day. This prevents the seedlings from reaching towards the light and growing bent and elongated stems. Brush the tops of the seedlings lightly with your hand to encourage stronger stem growth.
9. Feed them. Most seed-starting mixtures contain nutrients to help new seedlings develop roots and the first leaves. Once true leaves emerge, begin feeding the seedlings weekly with half strength liquid fertilizer to encourage growth.
10. Acclimate. All seedlings must be hardened off so direct sunlight and inconsistent outdoor temperatures don’t slow or stop their growth. Place them in direct sunlight in the morning only for a day, then increase the time outside over the next few of days. Transplant them when they are vigorous enough.
Use these ten steps, and your seedlings will get off to a healthy start this spring and every spring to come.