Seed Starting 101
Are you planning to start a garden this year? Congratulations! It’s a big deal! Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a beginner, growing a garden is good for everybody. It feeds the soul and the soil, and can even feed your family. Organic gardens are as good for the earth as they are for its lucky inhabitants. The secret to growing a healthy, lush garden all begins with a single seed.
Starting a garden off right with healthy seeds sets the roots for how the garden will grow the rest of the year. Sure, yeah, you can help to manage sick plants and dried out leaves, but starting seeds with good intentions and mad skills will make the rest of the year’s jobs a whole lot easier. Some of you may think I’m crazy, but I believe that how you care for the seeds will be reflected in the plant that grows, and the fruit that ripens. The garden is resting now. Perhaps even covered by a blanket of snow. Now there is ample time to slow down, plan, and nurture the very best plants to grace your garden beds.
Seed Starting 101: Start your own seeds this spring and revel in your gardening wizardry
“I made this!”, I gloat while serving up a dish made entirely of food that I grew in my garden. Well, “gloat” is probably not the right word. I prance around like the fantastical wizard I am, cheering about my mad skills in making real food from tiny seeds. It took me months. I had some fatalities. But overall, it’s fairly simple to grow from seeds. And more importantly, it’s awesome. Here are some basics for starting your own seeds at home.
Choose Your Seeds
Starting seeds early in the season is a great way to save money on annuals, which are flowers, herbs, and vegetables that will flower or fruit in the first year. More advanced propagatrixes could also start perennials from seed in many cases, but it is a more difficult and time-consuming process as perennials may need many months, or even years, to reach the size of a nursery plant.
Seed companies in your area should sell the right seeds for your climate, but do make sure that you pick the right plants for your experience level. If you’re a seedling yourself when it comes to propagation, don’t bother starting watermelons in Northern Ontario. Many seed companies will also list a difficulty rating that will help to guide you.
Read the Packet
Following the instructions on the seed packet will give you the best possible start, unless the growing directions read like my radicchio, “sow seeds a few days after a moonless night”, which may as well be gibberish. The majority of seed instructions will list everything you need to start seeds, like when and where to sow, planting depth and spacing, special watering requirements and days to germination. Some will also list special information like germination temperatures, repeat sowing, transplanting, and thinning. Following the instructions gives you the best chance of success, so those map-hating, instruction-scoffing types out there best pack away your stubbornness for this project.
You can start seeds in just about anything you can find around the house that will create a mini-greenhouse, or you can buy all sorts of interesting setups to best suit your needs.
Many different greenhouse kits are available now. Most will have a plastic tray with a clear plastic greenhouse dome. Some come with a soilless mixture for starting seeds, like peat pellets that expand to a mini seed pot when soaked in water. Others may have coconut fiber pots that you can transplant right along with your seedling. Others may even have a heat mat that gently warms soil to improve germination.
The beauty of these kits is that you can start a large number of seeds individually in one tray (up to 72) and many are made for small spaces like windowsills. The drawback is that the seedlings will need to be replanted, either in the garden or a larger pot, in a few weeks. Leaving seedlings in small pots with no nutrition will cause unwanted stress to the plants.
Garden retailers will sell many different types of professional-grade seed starting trays, domes, and inserts with features like root training, moisture control, automatic watering, and grow lights. Certainly, many of these features have value in starting the year’s plants off on the right foot and can be used over and over.
An inexpensive and creative way to start seeds is to use household items as seed containers. Lining a seed tray with pots made from toilet paper tubes, newspaper, or egg cartons will cost nothing. At times your family may think you’ve gone mad given how excited you will become when you get to take home the plastic cake dome from the party. But come on, that’ll make a really great greenhouse dome, right? Search for biodegradable paper products you can plant right in the ground or food-safe plastic containers that you can use as mini-greenhouses for your containers if you are on a budget.
You can buy a pre-made seed starter soil or you can make your own with a mix of three parts peat, two parts compost, and ten percent perlite. This mixture is light and holds moisture well, so it is wonderful for helping seeds germinate. All growing mediums will need some time to absorb water, so add moisture and let it soak in for an hour before planting.
Be sure to use a sterile mix if you are starting seeds indoors. Soil or compost from the garden will bring in all sorts of critters, like soil gnats, which will drive you freakin’ crazy as you run around your propagation trays like a mad person swatting and squashing an endless supply of teeny tiny flies.
Germination will be best in a moist environment for most seeds, so keeping the soil damp and a greenhouse dome on top will keep the right amount of humidity for optimal germination. Keep the soil from drying out by checking it daily. Water gently, from the bottom where possible, so as to not damage the seedlings about to emerge.
Dampening off is a term for a fungal growth which looks like fuzzy hairs on the stem of the seedling. This fungal growth will kill the seedling so it’s bad, real bad. To prevent dampening off, occasionally spray with a bottle of 3% food-grade hydrogen peroxide and vent the greenhouse dome on a regular basis to regulate humidity.
Seeds won’t need light until they emerge from the surface of the soil, but then they will need strong sunlight for most of the day to prevent them from becoming leggy (overly tall and spindly = weak). You can supplement a lack of sunlight with florescent lighting, either buying a set of grow lights made for seed starting or by making your own with florescent shop lights.
Generally the seed instructions will suggest that you plant 2-3 seeds per pot and thin out all but the strongest. This seems to be the thing that some gardeners have the hardest time with. If three strong tomato seedlings have popped up in one tiny peat pot, then the gardener rushes off to get tweezers and separate out the three wee plants and re-pots them all. More inexperienced gardeners will damage each plant, giving none a strong chance at survival, so it’s best that you grab a clean pair of scissors and snip all but the strongest seedling in each pot and be done with it.
As the seedlings grow into plants and the date to plant outside is getting near, it’s time to start hardening them off, or toughening them for their natural environment. I like to start by opening a window a few hours a day so they get a breeze. Then start moving the trays outside, out of direct sunlight, for a few hours. Start at one hour and gradually increase to a full day outside. By the time your plant date has arrived, you can safely transfer your tough little soldiers directly into the ground, with some delicious compost and a thorough watering, to brave the elements on their own.
Seed starting is such an interesting and magical process, especially for children, so it’s the perfect activity to do as a family this coming spring. The months that you’ve spent germinating and raising seedlings will be a series of trial and error, so expect some loss. Not every seed will germinate, not every seedling will survive being transplanted, and not every kind of plant will do well in your garden.
The gains will be clear when you have piles of leafy greens taking up every inch of your windowsills, bursting to get outside. Starting the plants off yourself ensures you are in charge of the health of the plant and can control what goes into it. And the satisfaction you’ll feel from starting your own seeds is tremendous.