Monday, March 1, 2010

Seed Starting Basics

It's nearly spring and everybody I know has Spring Fever. We ALL want to get outside and dig in the dirt. Lucky for us, we've had a lot of moisture, but digging in mud isn't good for the garden or the gardener.

How about starting a few plants from seed this year? It's really not as hard as you might think. Let me share a few tips that I've learned over the past few years.

Step 1: Choose your seeds. I realize this could be an entire blog post and I may write up something. What you need to know is: your growing zone and what you want to grow. I prefer growing Heirloom seeds (i.e. not genetically modified) because I can save seeds from this year's crop and grow them again next year, and eventually, it will be a zero-cost garden.

Most seed packages will tell you if you should direct sow or start indoors. Finding the last frost date for your area is a simple check of google. Count backwards the # of weeks indicated and then you'll know when to start your seeds indoors. Suffice to say, don't wait until May to decide to grow tomatoes from seed - there's just not enough warm season left to do this (well, it CAN be done, but it takes more work!)

Step 2: Now that you've gotten your seed, what do you grow it in? A few years ago, I stopped at the seed store and picked up several flats: sealed bottom, perforated bottom, divided and clear dome lids. Now, you don't need to go to this expense. Prior to that, I started seeds in leftover plastic containers (think salad bar to go boxes) and plastic wrap. ANYTHING that will hold soil will be fine to grow seeds in. I just upgraded so I'd have the uniform flats to re-use. All I need to do is wash them with a bleach/water solution prior to using. For growing medium, I use a mixture of Peat Moss and Vermiculite. You can see that I buy the X-LARGE bags of each. I use a lot of growing medium as we start over 600 plants each year. You may be fine to get the smaller bags, but for savings, get big bags and share w/ other gardeners. I mix at a 50/50 ratio in a large rubbermaid tote and wet it down as I go. TIP: mix outdoors! It's a very dusty!

Depending on the seed, I will use different inserts. For tomatoes and peppers, I prefer the 9-holes. For onions, I prefer an undivided tray. My son prefers the peat pots (we also were intrigued by the cow manure pots - but that's for another year.) After you fill your pot/flat with the peat/vermiculite mix, tuck the seeds in. Spray until the surface is dampened and cover it. I do not use heat mats of any kind as we have a large picture window that is south facing. It heats up quite nicely and I've not needed heat mats.

TIP: Leave one spot open in the middle - it'll be very helpful for watering later on. You can also leave a corner spot open. It's just easier to water this way vs. lifting the edge of the tray. (The growing tray is inserted into a sealed bottom tray to contain the water overflow.)

TIP: Use old mini-blinds for plant markers. Just cut to fit inside the lids and mark with a sharpie.

Step 3: As soon as the seeds sprout, REMOVE THE LID and water from the bottom only! Let the surface dry out. If you don't, damping off can occur. See above plant - the roots are literally growing above the soil line. There isn't much hope of saving plants when this has occurred. It's best to chuck them and start a new batch of seeds. Watering from the bottom will encourage plant roots to grow down. A lot of seed growers use oscillating fans to help keep the surface dry. Fans also strengthen the plant as it gets blown around (similar to outdoor conditions.)

Step 4: Once the plant has it's leaves formed, it's time to get them under a grow light. You CAN grow in window light, but you'll have more spindly plants and you'll want to turn the trays daily to avoid the hard lean that develops.

TIP: You can make your own grow station. I have this wire rack shelf I got from Target for around $35. It hold 6 flats on the 3 shelves with lights hooked to underneath shelf above via S-hooks and tiny chains. I can raise/lower the lights as needed. I set my lights to about 2" above the plants and move them up as needed. I purchased the lights from Walmart and have grow bulbs in them - not florescent bulbs.
In a few weeks, I'll share updated photos as this is not the only grow station we'll have. Our living room gets so stuffed with plants that by April, I'm stir crazy to get them outside. I do have a mini-greenhouse plus a cold frame where they all hang out until it's time to plant.
Happy Growing!!