Should You Start Seeds?
Every year I ask myself that question. Is it worth tying up valuable real estate on the windowsill or under grow lights? How about the disappointment of seeing a whole tray of healthy looking seedlings succumb to damping off fungus? Or the cost of buying seed starting mixture, fertilizer, and seeds? How about the time involved? But every year like clockwork, I start my own seeds, even increase the amount of seeds that I plant, because no matter what, gardeners are driven to plant seeds. And every spring, I feel hopeful and enjoy seeing those little seedlings emerge.
The huge advantage of starting seeds is you can save a lot of money! And that perk is what gets many gardeners hooked. Spending money on sterile seed starting medium is essential as well as your seeds, unless you are a seed saver. But for everything else, you can come up with alternatives. I use an array of different containers, from milk cartons to egg cartons. The plastic clam shells that contain spinach and greens are perfect as mini greenhouses or planting containers. I bought a bunch of large Tupperware containers at the dollar store for my mini greenhouses.
Also, instead of buying a few transplant varieties of the plants that you want, you can easily grow dozens and hundreds. This can be significant to attract pollinators, as it is essential to plant in drifts and not singly.
The other main reason to start your own seeds, is you can find and plant many unusual unique varieties that you can’t find at any nursery or garden center. There are hundreds of thousands of plant varieties, and there is no way that a nursery can even come close to carrying them all. Nurseries tend to be very conservative in what they carry, and go for the varieties that appeal to the mass market. I am not included in that mass market!! I want different and unusual plants. Go to Plant Geek Alert to see my post on unusual varieties that you can start from seed.
There are hundreds of new varieties that come out every year due to plant hybridization and these are the ones that I like to jump on and try. This year, I am trying a new tomato variety called Indigo Apple from Wild Boar Farms. The tomato has a dark indigo coloration that claims to have high levels of lycopene which has many health benefits. I will be profiling Wild Boar Farms and the exciting new varieties that are in the pipeline in a future post.
And I keep on going back to those plants that you can’t buy at a nursery, which is the biggest draw for me. Asclepias physocarpa, or Family Jewels which is a Butterfly Weed, is one, pictured above. I love using this for my dried arrangements and it is a great attractant for pollinators. Also, I grow it because it is a great conversation starter!
Here is another called ‘Cup and Saucer Vine’, Cobea scandens. I love how the beautiful violet flowers nod against my fence all summer long. This is definitely being planted in my seedling flats soon. And yes, this cannot be found at the local nursery! Browsing your catalogs, you can find so many new and unique seed varieties that don’t land on the nursery benches!
Seed Starting Guidelines
For help in ordering seeds, go to my post Art of the Seed to see what companies I order from.
Seed starting is not rocket science but here are some pointers that will help out a newbie if you decide to take the plunge.
Don’t start your seeds too early, especially tomatoes! Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost in your area.
If unsure of your last frost date, go to Best Planting Dates for Seeds chart, by The Farmer’s Almanac, which is based on your frost dates and by the Moon.
You may have to soak, scratch, or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet. Read the instructions! Some seeds need light to germinate, and you just need to press the seeds into the medium and not cover them.
Think clean!! I sterilize my containers with a dilute solution of bleach and water (10 to 1) to discourage a fungal disease called “damping off”. Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg cartons and milk cartons make good containers, too. Be sure to poke holes in the bottom of the containers you use for drainage.
Label your containers when you plant. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.
Fill clean containers with seedling mix. Use a good sterile seed starting mix. Don’t use potting soil as this compacts down and won’t let air flow through.
Pour soilless mix into a large bucket and moisten with warm water. Fill your containers to just below the rim.
Plant your seeds according to your seed packet. Most seeds can simply be gently pressed into the mixture; you can use the eraser end of a pencil to push in seeds. Cover lightly with chicken grit or parakeet gravel which retards “damping off”, by allowing air to circulate. To read more about the advantages of parakeet gravel or chicken grit, go to: http://2footalligator.blogspot.com/2012/03/chick-grit-for-successful-seed-starting.html
Seed Tip: When planting seeds, plant the largest seeds in the package to get the best germination rate.
Cover containers with plastic wrap or place in Tupperware containers until new seedlings poke through.
Water newly started seedlings carefully!! It is easy to spray water into your newly planted seeds and wash then all away. A mist sprayer is gentle but can take a long time. Try using a meat-basting syringe, which will dispense the water effectively without causing too much soil disruption. Or you can bottom water for least amount of disturbance.
Find a place in the kitchen where there is natural bottom heat—on top of the refrigerator or furnace, or near the oven. I use a simple bottom heating seed mat available from most seed catalog companies.
Seeds sprout best at temperatures of 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C), which is the temperature of most homes.
When seedlings appear, remove the lids and move containers into bright light.
When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, prepare each pot filled with a potting mix with plenty of compost. Move the seedlings carefully to the new pots and water well. Keep pots out of direct sun for a few days to acclimate.
Seed Tip- Don’t start your seeds too early. Read your seed packet and see how many weeks are recommended before setting them outside. The problem with starting them too early inside is that they can get leggy(reaching for light) and you will have to repot the plants into larger and larger containers because they could become root bound.
Making Newspaper Pots
Newspapers clog up my recycling bin and I found that I could use them in making simple seed starting containers. The advantage of starting in newspaper is you can plant the entire compostable newspaper-covered seedling outdoors intact, or pot up the container in a larger planter before setting out.
Newspaper pots for seed starting is the ultimate sustainable way of gardening. Here is the method, starting at the top left corner of the collage:
- Lay out a single folded sheet of newspaper.
- Fold over one layer and crease.
- Use a straight side juice glass to roll up your newspaper tightly.
- Fasten with twine and tie tight.
- Remove the glass and start tucking up the bottom flaps to form the bottom.
- Fill with seed medium and plant.
- Place in your mini greenhouse (Tupperware, plastic baggie, saran wrap) until the seeds sprout on top of your heating mat/furnace/refrigerator and then uncover.
- Be sure to label everything with names and dates. If something doesn’t sprout right away, some seeds take longer than others. But if a couple of weeks go by, you need to restart them.
- Keep your seedlings in the brightest light possible, preferably a west or south-facing window or grow light; turn them so they grow evenly; keep misting them or use the meat baster and don’t let them dry out.
- When the seedlings have at least 2 sets of leaves, you can transplant them carefully into each pot.
By keeping records year to year, you won’t make the same mistakes twice. You can note when you started something too early or too late and adjust for next year.
I am very forgetful about what I plant where because I plant different varieties of seed in one flat. When the seedlings send up their small shoots, they all look alike. So, if something doesn’t come up, you will know to try it again. I use old venetian blind pieces cut to the right size and label with a permanent marker like a sharpie, including the date started. Or try using popsicle sticks/coffee stirrers. Remember you will be watering these and any other markers will smear and disappear.
The Exciting Part
Then I check the flats everyday to see what is coming up. I love seeing the newly hatched seedlings pop through with their cotyledons, the scientific word for the first two seedling leaves that come through. These leaves are just the embryonic first seedling leaves that every seed shoots out upon germination. They will disappear in the next couple of weeks after the true leaves start to form.
If you own grow lights, you can control the amount of light that your seedlings receive and have healthier, stockier seedlings. After the first seeds germinate, put the flats under grow lights which can be as simple as fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling with chains. The chains are critical because you need to adjust the height of the lights above the seedlings. Place the lights about 3 to 4 inches above the height of the seedlings. At first this seems awfully close, but seedlings are hungry for light, and if they don’t get at least 12 to 14 hours of their allotted light, they will get spindly and unhealthy looking. For a tutorial on making a grow light stand out of PVC, go to Your Own Victory Garden . These are simple to follow instructions to build your own system, stand, and grow light for less than $60. Or go to http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/ten-seed-starting-tips.aspx to see videos on seed starting, and a great three-tiered grow light stand that you can make out of 2 x 2’s.
Since your soilless medium has no nutrients, you need to supplement this lack as soon as the seedlings have their true leaves formed. The original seed will have some stored food for the seedling to draw on but that is soon exhausted. Pick up some miracle grow or something similar to feed your seedlings regularly. Follow directions on your package for feeding seedlings.
Inside or Outside
Some seeds are best planted outside- Larkspur, Nigella, Poppies, Zinnias, Cockscomb, Sunflowers are just a few to come to mind. For veggies, I start all my vining crops, radish, peas, and beans outside. Tomatoes and peppers are better started six to eight weeks before your last frost date.
Poppy, Larkspur, and Nigella seeds are so tiny and need some chilly weather to germinate so I just scatter these outside in early spring or late winter. Sunflowers and Zinnias readily germinate in the spring outside and grow quickly so it is not worth the space to start them inside. Sunflowers, Cosmos, Zinnias, and other quickly growing annuals should be started when all danger of frost is over in your area.