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!!


fullfreezer said...

I need to get my growing station set up. I've got a bit more of a challenge this year since we now have two cats that I need to keep out of the seedlings.
Nice to hear from you.

Shellyann said...

I never thought about leaving one space open for watering! Great idea! I find your postings very interesting and insightful!

C. said...

I always suspected I could use those plastic salad containers as seed starters!

Sadly, none of my attempts at starting (indoors) from seed has ever been very successful. This post will be extremely helpful if I decide to try again. (Every spring I get the bug, but I don't always follow through to harvest!)

Cindy said...

Like C, my attempts at starting seeds have failed miserably. I have found that I do much better at planting them outside. Somehow the ones inside either get too much water or not enough or too much sun or not enough. LOL. It's the story of my life, too much or not enough!

mary said...

Thanks for the idea of leaving one of the cells empty for watering. I've fussed and fussed with my trays, lifting the edge of the cells...
What do you do with your indoor seedlings once you have to transplant them into bigger pots? Or do you plant your seedlings directly into the garden from these packs?

bed frames said...

I never thought that I need that kind of procedures to grow seed well. Now that I know the right things to do. My garden is going to be great.

Peter Daniels said...

We have been asked to participate again this year in the Energy Sustainability Fair and will have great deals again on our Wichita Rain Barrels. We are still waiting to find out about the great deal the City of Wichita has gotten for you but I do know it will be well worth the time to come on down and participate in the Summit and Fair. We are also do a presentation on rain barrels this year and will have some great hand outs to distribute. We are really excited and hope to see you there!

ps this means we will be selling Wichita Rain Barrels for 25.00, regular price is 100.00!

sawn48 said...

I just stumbled across this post of yours, and my siblings and I have dabbled with the idea of building ourselves either greenhouses,potting sheds,cold frames,etc. Several of the nine children in our family have the gardening gene, and we are now at a point where we can spend more time working with our projects.Your post is going to be a great help to us all. Thanks for sharing.