Guide to Starting Seeds
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Tomorrow is the first day of spring- yay! With the time changing last weekend and a little more daylight in the afternoons, I don't know about you but I have really got spring fever! I have enjoyed the warmer days we've seen lately and I can't wait until they're here consistently.
Since we aim to put our garden plants in the ground by mid-April, now is the time of year for us to prepare our beds and start our seeds. If you would like some tips on planning your garden please check out some of the other posts on my site. I've got several up that can help you create the garden you've been daydreaming about.
We had an unexpected snowstorm here in the middle of February. That left the ground a frozen and then soggy mess which delayed our timeline for cleaning up the garden plots slightly. Once we were able to get things in order again, I decided it was time to start the seeds. We try to start as much from seeds as we can for several reasons:
Seeds are more economical than seedlings.
There are many more options with seeds than seedlings.
We can try new things and if they don't work out, we don't feel like we wasted as much money.
I love watching the plant grow from seed to seedling, then to a mature plant that provides us with food.
Starting seeds is not difficult and I find it to be relaxing and a lot of fun. I have been promising an in-depth guide to starting your own seeds, and now I'm delivering.
What you'll need:
Starting seeds only requires a few items, but there are some that you may like to have as well. They include:
Seeds- of course! There are generally many seeds in one packet, and the average home gardener will need just one packet of each type.
Seed starting mix- plain potting soil won't work as well to start seeds. It's heavier and holds too much water, so it can weigh the tiny seeds down and cause them to rot before they can germinate.
A bucket- I like to pre-moisten my seed starting mix with water in a five-gallon bucket.
Seed starting containers- there are multiple options here. You can buy peat pots designed for starting seeds. These pots claim you can simply plant the entire thing in the ground and it will disintegrate. I have tried that and it didn't work. I used plastic cups this year.
A spray bottle or other way to mist the seeds- baby seeds can't take the force of a garden hose.
A greenhouse- We have this one * that is made to be set up right against the house. It's great for starting seeds. We have had it for three years now. It cost less than a hundred bucks on Amazon. Last summer the remnants of Hurricane Laura took out both of our apple trees, one of which was planted about five feet from the greenhouse. The greenhouse survived unharmed. I highly recommend it.
Plant marker stakes- you want a way to record what you have planted in each pot. It's almost impossible to tell one type of tomato from another based on the plant alone. You can purchase plastic stakes and write on them with a marker. Other options include writing on the pot or using popsicle sticks. I have done both. Writing washes off of both peat pots and popsicle sticks after just a few waterings. This year I used plastic drinking cups and put holes in the bottoms. I wrote on them with a permanent marker. I can reuse these cups again and again in the coming seasons.
Seedling heat mat- I have never used a mat since I start my seeds outdoors, but they help promote an evenly warm environment for your seeds.
A plant grow-light- this is another tool I haven't used since we start seeds outdoors, but a grow-light will provide the proper amount of light to ensure your seedlings grow strong and aren't leggy.
Once you have all your supplies together it's time to get started. Starting garden seeds is an easy process and doesn't usually take very long. I started just under twenty cups of seeds and the whole process took me about half an hour.
First, pour some of the seed starting soil mixture into the five-gallon bucket and slowly add water. You will want to add a little bit, mix it well, then add a little bit more until you have the right amount of moisture. It needs to be moist all the way through but not dripping, soggy, or holding standing water in the bottom of the bucket.
Next, add the soil to your pots or cups. If you are using plastic cups, be sure you added drainage holes to the bottoms. I used a small Phillips head screwdriver and punctured four small holes in the bottom of each cup. You also want to make sure you write the name of the seed you are planting on the cup before you add soil and seeds. It's much easier this way. If you're using plant marker stakes, this step isn't applicable. as you'll put them in after you have planted the seeds.
Once you've got soil in the cups, you can add the seeds. I like to add two of each seed to a cup. Then you will simply gently press the seeds into the soil where they are just barely covered. That's it! Since you pre-moistened the soil you don't need to water them just yet. Set them on the seedling heat mat if you're starting them indoors, or put them in the greenhouse if you are starting them outside.
The three images below show, from left to right:
The holes punched in the bottom of the cup for drainage.
Writing on the cup to keep up with what's in each one.
Two cucumber seeds placed in the cup, ready to be covered with soil.
Once the seeds are in the greenhouse or on the heat mat, you still need to check on them at least once each day. They need to stay evenly moist but not soggy. Indoors you may not need to mist them as often, but in the greenhouse when it's sunny out I need to mist mine at least once daily. I like to use the pump bottle shown below made for balloons. It holds air to fill a regular balloon or water for water balloons. But it has a misting function and it works wonderfully to water delicate seedlings. We picked it up at the local dollar store.
The photos below show the seedlings in the greenhouse and also the mister bottle that I use to water them. A regular spray bottle will work too, but this offers a continuous stream so it's faster. You can also use a mister option on a hose nozzle, but avoid any strong streams of water so you don't damage the tiny plants.
Most seeds begin to sprout within two weeks, but check the seed packets for detailed information. If my seeds haven't begun to sprout by the time indicated on the packs, I poke a couple more seeds into the pot. Viability rates vary by seed packet and it's totally normal for the first round not to germinate.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if both seeds come up in the pot, choose only the strongest plant to keep. You want one strong and healthy plant per pot. You can't plant two in the ground together. Using a small pair of scissors, cut the weaker plant off at the soil level so that the stronger of the two can continue to grow uninterrupted.
Once the seedlings have reached several inches tall and have several sets of true leaves, it's time to transplant them. If you are ready, they can go into the garden, but if not you might consider potting them up, or moving them into a slightly larger pot till they can go in the garden.
You want to gradually acclimate seedlings to being outdoors before you put them in the ground. This process is called hardening them off and it's not difficult. You'll begin doing this once it has warmed up enough and about a week or two before you put them in the ground. Each day, set the plants outside in a shady spot, or at least not in full sun, and let them sit for several hours. Gradually increase their amount of time outdoors and the sunlight they receive until they are ready to go in the garden.
This helps reduce the amount of transplant shock the plant will suffer and also helps it strengthen itself against the elements so it can remain strong and healthy all throughout the growing season.
Once you've completed that process, your plants are ready to go into the garden! Doesn't it feel wonderful knowing that you nurtured a plant from a seed to a healthy adult plant that will repay you with wonderful and healthy food all summer long?
What tips do you have for starting seeds? Do you do anything special that works great for you? I'd love to hear about it!