Seed Starting 101
As of today there are ten weeks left until the average date of last frost in our area. Of the past three years there was only one where we experienced frost that late in the year — May 10, 2010 — and it was just one night. Otherwise, recent history says we’re probably looking at more like six to eight weeks of night time temperatures below freezing. (Last frost in 2011 and 2012 were on April 18th and 29th, respectively.) The Climate Prediction Center appears to agree. And, as you’ve probably figured out by now, I can’t wait!
In fact, I’m just straight up ignoring the forecast that says our daytime highs will be in the 20s next weekend. If I ignore it, it’ll go away, right?
This past weekend I broke out the seed starting supplies and got to work on this year’s plans. Since we’re not offering a CSA this year and I’ve promised to do everything I can to help you with your own vegetable garden success, I thought I’d put together a post on the seed starting process.
Now, to be fair, if you’re looking for the single most frugal or DIY way to do this, I’m probably not your gal. I’ve been around the garden block enough times and have dealt with enough preventable gardening disasters to have a thorough appreciation for the value of a few good products, and I’m generally willing to make an investment early in the season in order to glean a worthwhile crop later. I’m also busy, which means in some cases convenience is worth a few extra nickels off the top. I’ll try to note instances where less expensive, though more time consuming options may exist so you can decide for yourself. Ready?
Let’s start with our supplies.
First things, first. You need seeds, and it’s easiest if you gather up everything you want to start ahead of time. Keeping in mind, of course, that not all varieties need to be started ahead of time indoors, and even of those that do require starting, the time frames differ amongst them.
10-12+ wks BLF: Onions, Leeks.
6-10 wks BLF: Tomatoes, Tomatillos, Peppers, Artichokes, Eggplant.
4-6 wks BLF: Cauliflower, Broccoli, Cabbage, early Greens for transplanting.
4 or fewer wks BLF: Melons, Cucumbers, Squashes.
This past weekend I mostly started tomatoes, artichokes, and some potted herbs.
You’ll also need containers. I’ve started seeds in everything from homemade newspaper pots, to SOLO cups, to those plantable peat pots, to these rather “official” looking pots, trays, and flats. Throughout the years I’ve been able to accumulate a decent stock of flats and dedicated starting pots and am very much thankful for that. The investment in them a few here and a few there throughout the years has more than paid off, as far as I’m concerned. If you can afford to go out and get yourself decent containers, do. You won’t regret it. If you can’t, buy what you can and improvise the rest. Over the years you’ll end up with a stockpile, too. Just be diligent. Save the little pots any of your boughten plants come in and invest in a flat here or there as you’re able. Of the cheap, easy ways to improvise I recommend using SOLO cups. They’re the next best thing to actual seed starting pots, if you ask me. Just remember to poke a few holes in the bottom of each cup for drainage.
And last, but certainly not least, you’ll need your starting medium. You can buy seed starting soil as is pictured here. Or, if you have a good compost pile, with nice, fine compost you can use that. The key to a good seed starting medium is that it is fine and holds moisture well. You don’t want chunky dirt as your seeds will have poor contact and will not germinate well and you don’t want something that is going to dry out quickly as you need the moisture for germination. If you use your own compost, you can bake it to sanitize.
If I were better at planning ahead I’d use our compost, too. I always forget until it’s all wet and cold and I don’t want to mess with it so I end up buying mix. Either way is fine. Maybe next year I’ll remember to sock some away before winter sets in.
Depending on your preferences you may also want some alternative seed starting options such as these peat pellets. I know some gardeners do not like these because they are small and a growthy plant’s root system quickly out grows the space they allow. For me, they offer much appreciated convenience, making it easy to start, organize, and keep track of those types of plants of which I start a lot. I use them primarily for plants that will require potting up anyway — such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants — so the space issue is not one of great concern to me. I’ve been using them for several years now and am a big fan.
If you’re using pots, you’ll want to fill them almost to the top with your seed starting medium and add water slowly to thoroughly dampen the soil.
If you’re using peat pellets new trays will come pre-loaded, but trays you’ve had for a year or two will need to be loaded with re-fill pellets.
And those pellets will need to be hydrated. Warm water works best as does being patient. Just cover the pellets the first time and give them a few minutes to soak up the water before adding more.
It usually takes 2-3 quarts of warm water per tray of 72 peat pellets to fully hydrate them.
Once your starting medium is hydrated, whether pots or trays of pellets, you can distribute your seeds. I like to lay my seeds on top of the mixture, regardless of which method I’m using, until all of my pots/pellets have been allocated seeds, rather than burying them as I go along. This way I don’t forget where I am and accidentally double seed a pot, flat, or pellet.
I usually plant two or three seeds per peat pellet and often plant that many per pot, depending on what I’m starting. This way I can choose only the most vigorous seedlings out of each pellet or pot to plant out in the garden. The exception would be extremely rare seeds where I may not be able to get more and do not have enough to be generous with them. In this case you can see I have planted two tomato seeds per pellet and four to five artichoke seeds per pot. When the tomato seeds sprout I’ll wait until they begin to set first leaves and then pinch off the smaller, less vigorous of the two plants in each pellet before potting them up. And in the case of artichokes, roughly 20% of all artichoke plants are infertile by nature. That means in most pots I’ll be left with three to four plants per pot and those can easily be separated when it’s time to transplant them outside, saving space on the indoor seed starting racks.
Once you’ve laid out all of your seeds, you need to cover them up. In the case of the pots, you can simply sprinkle more of your seed starting medium over top.
In peat pellets you can use your finger to work the seeds into the pellets and ensure they’re well-covered.
Pay special attention to seed planting depth as you work. Each variety of plant will require a certain depth at which the seeds will best germinate. Tomatoes are generally planted at one quarter of an inch, artichokes at one half, and so on and so forth. Improper seed planting depth will interfere with germination, so plant accordingly.
If you’re using peat pellets they will be thoroughly soaked already, but if you’ve added more starting medium on top of pots you’ll want to hydrate it before putting your pots up. As you can see a handy-dandy repurposed mason jar works great. I just poked some holes in a used lid with a nail and away we go.
If you’re growing more than one variety of each species of plant don’t forget to label your pots and trays before you put them up.
Trays will probably have come with covers, but for pots you’ll want to improvise one. Plastic wrap and a rubber band works. The covers are important because they lock in the moisture necessary for the seeds to germinate.
Most seeds require 60-80 degree soil to germinate, so place your pots and flats somewhere warm and monitor them for sprouting. You’ll want to remove your covers as soon as your seeds have sprouted to prevent mold from attacking young seedlings. That’s why, when using flats, it’s a good idea to plant varieties that have similar germination requirements and time frames.
And that’s it! Next up: seedling care.
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*BLF = Before Last Frost. Read more about Hardiness Zones and frost dates.