- What to start?
I start what I eat in volume. I also start what is expensive to buy or hard to find. I don’t start anything vining or quick growing.
- When to start?
Depends on the type of seed you choose. If you look at the back of the seed’s pack, there will be a suggestion as to when to begin indoors. The pack will say something like 3-4 weeks before frost. That’s not what I do. I start my vegetables indoors 3-4 weeks prior to May 15th. The frost date for our zone varies from mid to late April. In my opinion, the safest date to plant warm season vegetable outdoors is after May 15th. Before then, the night temperatures can be a bit cool.
- Starting Mix
Unless you are sure your starting soil is sterile, I would go with a soilless mix. We do not need to introduce any foreign pathogens to our seedlings. Soilless mixes tend to stay fluffy which allows the roots to expand easier.
Since new seedlings do not require any fertilizer until they sprout their first true leaves, you do not need a starter mix with fertilizer.
I use the Hoffman seed starting mix. The Hoffman mix is a combination of peat moss and vermiculite. This mix seems to retain just the right amount of moisture and is nice and fluffy.
Seeds can be started in almost any type of container. In fact, you do not even need a container to start seeds. Seeds can also be started in a damp paper towel. I’m not fond of starting seeds in a paper towel. The very fragile seedlings have to be transferred from the paper towel to a container and that may lead to a disaster.
The most common options for starting seeds are peat pots, starter pots and seed starting trays.
Peat pots are a ready to go all in one system. They are entirely made of dried peat moss and held together by plastic netting. The way you use these is to take one of the dried pellets and soak it in warm water. The pellet will soak up the water and expand into a little pot. You put your seed directly into the top and when it is ready to be transplanted outside, you plant the entire peat pot right into your garden.
Starter pots are actual little pots that are made of peat moss of coir. (Coir is the hair from the outside of a coconut) and just like the peat pots, the starter pots can be planted directly in the garden when the time comes. Unlike the peat pots, the starter pots need to be filled with a starter mix.
Then there is the seed starting trays. These trays look like oversized ice cube trays except we are going to fill them with a starter mix instead of water. I like to use a starter tray that has smaller cells and that comes with a dome. The dome allows the tray to retain moisture and build up heat.
I find that the smaller cells allow me to control my watering better. Any plants that are going to grow too large for the cells, I move to a starter pot.
As I said, I like to use the seed tray that comes with a cover. I want to try and create a greenhouse like environment. If you are using peat pots or starter pots, you can put them into large Tupperware. Just make sure the Tupperware is taller than your peat pots or starter pots. If you are using a seed tray that doesn’t have a lid, you can put toothpicks in the soil and lay a piece of plastic wrap across the top of
If you are only going to be starting a few pots, put the pots in a zip lock bag. I like to lay the bag on its side and cut the bottom open and leave it unzipped. Use toothpicks or cut straws to keep the plastic above the pots. This allows air to pass through. It is important to have air circulation otherwise you may get mold.
- The Procedure
- Soaking the Seed
I always soak my seeds as the first step. By soaking the seed, moisture penetrates deep into the seed and gets the germinating process started. Is soaking necessary? No, but it seems to increase the amount of seeds that germinate and quickens their sprouting. I don’t soak everything. I find the really little seeds do not benefit. I soak everything else.
I put warm water into a bowl just deep enough so my seeds will be covered. I sprinkle the seeds in and leave them to soak 12 to 18 hours. Make sure you put each different type of seed in its own bowl. You do not want to mix the seeds.
The seed will absorb the water and will even swell a bit. Once, the seeds are swollen, move them into your pre-moistened starting mix right away.
- Preparing the Starter Mix
I take my Hoffman’s seed starting mix and I dump it out so I can work on it. I pour mine into a shallow tote. First, I break up any lumps then I wet the soil. Wetting the soil is tricky. You don’t want the soil very wet just moist like a rung out wash cloth. Take your moist soil and fill your trays or starter pots 3/4 of the way. Next, gently press the soil with your fingers to firm up the soil. If your using peat pots, once you have soaked them you’re ready to go.
- Planting the Seeds
On the back of most seed pack, you will find instructions on how deep to plant your seeds. Most seeds seem to want to be planted between 1/4″ and 1″ deep. If the seed pack doesn’t say or if you’re using seeds you collected or were given, the rule of thumb is plant the seeds three times their width (thickness). For the really little seeds, I just sprinkle them on top of the starting mix and cover with a thin layer of the mix.
The rule of thumb is three seeds per container because not all of your seeds will germinate. Since I soak the seeds beforehand, my germination rate seems to be a bit better. So, I use two seeds per container. If you want to stay on the safe side, you can stick with three seeds per container.
After planting your seeds, carefully water from the top. I use a mister bottle to spray down the top of the soil.
- Temperature & Light
Most seeds germinate best when kept around 65 to 70 degrees. My house is usually kept around 67 degrees which is the low end of the temperature range. By using my plastic cover, I can get my seedlings even warmer. If I feel like I need a bit more heat, I put my trays on top of the refrigerator. For those people who feel they may need more heat and you can’t use the top of your refrigerator, you can purchase a heat mat. Heat mats go under your seed trays and keep the soil nice and warm. I don’t recommend using a heat mat with peat pots or starter pots that are in a Tupperware. Only use a heat mat that is made for seed germination.
Most seeds do not require light to germinate. But once they begin to poke through the soil, you’re going to have to provide some light. Seedlings need 12 plus hours of light a day so putting your seedlings by a sunny window may not be enough. I use a grow bulb to ensure the seedlings get plenty of light. I usually turn it on when I get home and leave it for 3-4 hours. Using a bright florescent light has also worked well. I ran the florescent for 4-6 hours daily in addition to using the natural sunlight from my windows. The length of time you will need to have your lights on depends on how much natural light you’re getting.
- Care for your seedlings
As your seedlings grow, they will produce their first set of leaves called cotyledons. These first leaves are full of nutrients and feed the seedlings until the true leaves develop. The first leaves are supposed to dry up and fall off so don’t think anything is wrong with your plants. Once these leaves have fallen off, it is time to start fertilizing. Since I’m going organic, I use fish emulsion. Other people recommend using a synthetic fertilizer with a higher phosphate. Both ways work. My suggestion is to use half of the recommended amount. It is very easy to burn your new seedlings.
If more than one seedling grows in each of your containers, cut the weaker one out using a scissor. I don’t recommend trying to dig out to transplant. It’s too easy to damage the tender new roots and pulling out the weaker one out may damage the roots of the seedling you want to keep.
- A special note on tomatoes
When tomatoes get too large for their cell, I usually transplant them into a four inch starter pot. Since tomato plants can root from the stem, I’ll plant my tomatoes deep, all the way to the bottom set of leaves. This way by the time they get outside, my tomatoes will have a nice big root bag.