The grass is starting to green up and bulbs are peeking through the soil and spring is around the corner. Gardening chores come fast and furious once warm weather hits and sometimes you don’t have time to fit all the tasks in. To jump-start your gardening year, you can hit the ground running early to get a head start. Late winter is my favorite time to get many of the spring jobs done or at least started, to lessen the springtime stress of overload.
Weeding-My top priority in late winter/early spring is keeping weeds under control. Cold weather weeds such as chickweed and mustard are much easier to hand weed when small. Plus, the weeds haven’t gone to seed yet to spread around. Adopt a policy of a little weeding often to reduce your weeding burden.
Soil Test-Everything starts with good soil. Many nurseries or extension offices offer soil testing services. Take advantage of these by finding out what nutrients your soil needs by submitting a soil sample.
Fertilize-Fertilize trees and ornamentals with a balanced granular fertilizer when the soil is dry. I use an old coffee can with a plastic lid with perforated holes to sprinkle the recommended amount around the plant and water in. If you are an organic gardener, apply a layer of compost around the plant.
Rake-Rake out loose leaves and debris from your gardening beds so that mulch can be applied evenly. Be sure to remove pockets of old leaves that get caught up in twiggy shrubs.
Mulch-Apply an organic mulch about 2 inches thick avoiding the base of trees and shrubs. This will help retain moisture during dry spells, reduce weeds, and improve soil structure. Don’t create mulch volcanoes around your trees as this can invite insect damage and disease.
Lawn-Rake out old thatch and remove weedy patches, seeding bare areas. Scratch the grass seed into the top layer so that seed has good contact with the soil. Spread a pre-emergent to stop weeds from germinating and a “Weed and Feed” to promote strong roots.
Prune-With leaves absent, you can easily see damaged and broken limbs that need to be removed. Renewal pruning to renovate older overgrown shrubs should be done now before they put on new growth. Cut back to the ground shrubs such as butterfly bush, spirea, hypericum, and hardy hibiscus. Knock Out Roses should be cut to about 10 inches high to keep these manageable.
Container Refresh-Remove the top 3-4 inches of old potting medium from your containers and replace with fresh compost and potting soil. Make sure the drainage holes aren’t clogged with old roots. I use a metal rod to punch through the fibrous roots.
Seed Starting-Start seeds of tomatoes/peppers/eggplants indoors for transplanting in the spring. Outdoors plant seeds of cold tolerant annuals such as snapdragons, larkspur, poppies, and nigella. See my post on Seed Starting for pointers.
Perennial Dividing-Now is the perfect time to split up and divide overgrown perennials such as iris and hosta and move them around. Waiting later in the season to divide a fully-grown plant can be cumbersome and hard work. Plus, the perennials have a longer time to root in to produce more prolific flowers. I like to divide when the first stems with leaves are emerging.
Tools-Clean rust and mud off your tools and oil and sharpen them. Organize your potting or tool shed so that you can find things in a hurry.
Compost-I always clean out my compost pile by spreading the rich loamy material around my ornamentals and in my vegetable garden. If you don’t have a compost pile, now is the time to start one. Using a length of snow fencing attached to metal stakes is the easiest way to start either a large or small one. A gate can even be created with a hinged portion of the snow fence.
Seed starting in spring is a rite of passage for me. Fingering all the seed packets, shaking them, and admiring the beautiful covers is all part of the process. If I don’t have at least a hundred seed packets stacked up, I get restless and start browsing more seed catalogs.
It is a lot of work to start them, and it requires some equipment to do it right, but when late winter/early spring rolls around, it is kind of like Christmas with the new shoots poking though. My slow period for my landscape business is the winter, so I have the time to devote to seed starting. Here are the reasons you should be seed starting:
1. More Choices-At a nursery they might sell 20-25 varieties of tomatoes. From seed you can grow at least a thousand more. The varieties that you can grow are mind boggling, and only a fraction of these are grown and sold at a local nursery. Some flower varieties like Nigella, Love-in-a-mist, or annual Poppies must be started from seed outside to be successful. See my post on Cool Flowers-Early Spring Bloomers.
2. Save Money
A packet of Zinnias will set you back by $2.50. If you bought all those packs of annuals at the nursery that one packet can start, you pay that many times over. Plus, if you grow heirlooms, you can save the seeds and regrow every year.
3. It’s Easy
Most vegetables should be started directly into the garden. Planting transplants of cucs, beans, peas, beets, carrots, lettuce……. the list goes on, is expensive and time consuming, and not practical. Starting seed directly into a vegetable garden avoids transplant shock and gives veggies a head start.
4. Save the Bees
Many transplants and soils have been treated with insecticides that negatively impact bee visits. Some nurseries are careful and transparent, but some are not, and many times aren’t labeled with the insecticide treatment. Go to my post on Pesticide Free Nurseries. You are controlling your quality of new transplants by starting them yourself.
5. It’s Fun !
Reconnect with nature during the dark days of winter and watch your seedlings grow! I love watching the snow pile up outside while my healthy seedlings are growing before my eyes inside.
My most important piece of equipment is a PVC light stand for my grow light. Go to PVC Light Stand for easy to follow, inexpensive directions for a light stand. I put this together myself, so anyone can construct one. Yes, you can use your window sills for light, but a light hung a few inches above seedlings is vastly superior and will make your seedlings fat and happy, not thin and spindly. There are too many cloudy winter days for seedlings to get their required allotment of light. I just use a simple LED shop light, available at any hardware store. LED is the key word here, as it gives off a much stronger light than fluorescent.
Most seedling benefit from bottom heat and will shoot up much quicker. You could use a radiator or other warm surface, but I like the heat mat as it fits exactly under a flat and you can control the temperature. Inexpensive also, heat mats are available on Amazon.
Flats are simply low narrow trays that you can fill with soilless medium. Once filled, you nest into another waterproof tray to catch any excess water and you can also use the clear lid to create a moist environment to enhance seed starting. Some trays are divided into cells, so you are growing a seedling in its own contained root run.
How many times have you started seedlings, and found to your horror that they fall over and die? This is the consequence of “damping off”, a far to common occurrence which is a fungal disease that occurs under damp, moist conditions. Right! Your seedlings are damp and moist because you are misting them to encourage them to sprout! So, I use a small fan attached to my light stand to circulate the air to discourage “damping off”. And it works. Simple solution, but effective.
I like to water with a mister, as it disturbs the seedlings the least. But it requires a lot of time to mist all my seedlings by hand, so I have graduated to a large (6 liter) watering can with a fine mesh “rose”. A “rose” just diffuses the water so it falls gently onto the seedlings and is much more efficient than a mister.
Additional Lighting Units
The LED grow lights are wonderful, but sometimes every seedling won’t fit under the grow light. So, I supplement with LED spray lights.
You need a source of sterile soilless medium to start your seeds. I use coconut coir, which is a coconut fiber extracted from the husk of coconut. The beauty of coir, which is sold in a compressed form, is that I am not lugging home heavy bags of potting soil. Instead, I buy small compressed blocks of coir, 3″ x 6″, hydrate it in water, and I end up with 8 quarts of potting medium. Much less expensive and more convenient, you can find this online or at Home Depot, or other hardware stores. There is no nutrition in this soil medium, so as soon as your seedlings are up and running, you need to fertilize.
Seed starting setup
Going through my seed packets
Punch hole for seeds with a pencil
My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
Creating seed pots with newspaper
Creating seed pots with newspaper
Label all your seeds
My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
Flat with spray LED lighting
A breath of fresh air on a winter night
Poppies, here it is “Lauren’s Grape”, do best direct seeded in the garden
I love looking through all my seed packets
Compressed coconut coir ready to be hydrated
Spray LED lights are valuable for lighting
I attach a small fan to move air to avoid “damping off”
Have you ever been served a dish in a restaurant which was garnished with colorful and vibrant greens? Most likely these were microgreens, know for their visual appeal, and crunch. Though minuscule in size, they are concentrated with nutrients. Studies have shown that micro greens are loaded with good stuff, such as vitamins C, E, and K, lutein, and beta-carotene- many times more than the mature leaves of the plant.
Flavorful and providing a textural contrast to a dish like a soup or slab of fish, a few microgreens can go a long way.
Not to be confused with sprouts- germinated seeds that are eaten whole-a microgreen is an immature green that is harvested with scissors when the plants are about two inches tall. The stem, cotyledons (or seed leaves) and first set of true leaves are all edible. You are essentially eating seedlings! And the variety of seedlings include herbs and flowers, and vegetables. Most popular are sunflowers, radishes, peas, arugula, basil, beets, kale, and cilantro.
Pricey to buy in a grocery store and hard to find, microgreens are a snap to grow quickly in a small amount of space. Gather your supplies and you could have a variety of greens growing within a half hour of starting. The harvest time is a mere one to two weeks.
I use Botanical Interests seeds because they are organic and have a wide variety of heirloom varieties.
The easiest method to grow microgreens is using a soilless method with jute pads. Soilless means no splashing up of soil to spatter the newly emerged sprouts and I prefer this way of starting to others now.
No fertilizer is needed for these quick growers; it is all included in the seed package.
You need two seed flats, one perforated for the top and a solid one to hold water on the bottom. Nest these together and place the pre-cut jute pad inside and fill the trays with a half-inch of water. After an hour or two, the jute pad should be saturated and you can dump out the excess water and you are ready to sow your microgreen seeds. Sprinkle them thickly on the top of the jute pad-you don’t need to cover or press them in-just sprinkle. Then spray with a mister to moisten everything and place a clear plastic cover on top to hold in moisture. That’s it! And you will be harvesting in less than a week.
To speed up the process, I placed my flats on top of seed heating mats.
Heat mats are wonderful tools for seed starting and inexpensive. I have two of them and they are in constant use in January and February. Bottom heat will jump start your seedlings even in your warm house. Seeds actually germinate quicker and healthier when supplied with warm soil or substrate (jute)—obtained through a bottom heat source. For seed germination, ideal temperatures should range from 65 to 80˚F. You could actually duplicate these conditions by placing on top of a radiator or furnace, but watch out that the soil doesn’t dry out too quickly.
After the microgreens have germinated, I place the trays under a four foot all-season shop light suspended by a PVC frame that is easy to put together. For about $47, you can cut up PVC to make a quick hanging frame that will suspend your light over your seedlings-much superior to natural light on a windowsill.
Another option are root pouches which are perfect for use in growing microgreens. The Designer Line of Root pouches are made out of porous material that allows the plants to breath, and the containers come in three colors: Navy Blue, Forest Green and Heather Grey. For my microgreens, I used the Joey size at 5″ in diameter and 3″ high.
Studies have shown that using grow bags made out of recycled materials, produce healthy, strong fibrous root systems on plants. Breathable material, the Root Pouch company says on its website: “Root Pouch is a family run business that turns discarded plastic bottles into a versatile, geotextitle material. The Root Pouch fabric planting container keeps plants healthy by letting excess water drain and allowing roots to breathe and grow.” Allowing air to pass through the pot, it promotes a healthy root system.
How to Plant
Fill pouch or container about 2/3 full of potting medium
Firm soil with fingers, and mist with a light spray until saturated
Place in a warm place (heating mat) in indirect light
Shoots will sprout within a few days
Working carefully, taking care not to crush or bruise your tender seedlings, cut the shoots right above the soil or substrate line. Begin cleaning the sprouts by laying a damp paper towel on a tray and placing it near the sink. Give tiny clumps of seedlings a dip in cool (not icy) water, and lay out onto the paper towel.
Store greens between the paper towels and place in a ziploc plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will last about a week wrapped up this way. Garnish your meals with these high nutrient-packed greens to add more vitamins to your diet.
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.
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.
Press your seeds in the medium with the eraser end of a pencil
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.
Seedling with first leaves-Image via Wikipedia
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.
Plant Poppies outside
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.