My gardening goals have always been to grow as much of our food as I can, while saving as much money as possible, and not making a lot of work for myself. I want gardening to always remain fun and never become a chore. And I want to grow the biggest, most beautiful, lush and healthy plants.
Is that too much to ask?
Picking out tomato and pepper plants from a nursery is fun, but starting my own garden from seeds, many that I’ve saved myself, is a hundred times better! I don’t know if it’s because I am saving money, watching the life of a plant come full circle, or seeing through a project from the beginning to end, but it’s deeply satisfying.
This isn’t a full tutorial by any means. It’s a collection of tips, tricks, and things I’ve learned over the many years I’ve been starting seeds. Including some things I’ve learned the hard way, which happens to be my least favorite way to learn things.
My General Seed Starting Protocol
This is a rough overview of what I typically do to start seeds, in order:
-Try desperately to remember which week I usually start seeds in Zone 4.
-Start with an individual cell seed starting tray, planting one or two seeds per cell.
-Set seed starting tray on a seed tray heat mat to speed up germination.
-Make sure my seedlings are under a grow light when they come up.
-After seeds sprout and grow a couple inches, transfer them to larger cups.
-Move seeds slowly outside as soon as it is warm enough.
-Transfer plants to the ground once there is no danger of frost.
A. Seed Starting Lighting
Did you know that most vegetable seeds don’t need light to germinate? They only need moisture and the proper temperature. But they do need light immediately after they emerge from the soil.
I turn the grow light on about the third day after planting my seeds, so that they don’t accidentally come up and not have light, which will cause them to get leggy- which is not as desirable as it may sound.
What is “leggy?” If Conan O’Brian were a plant, he’d be leggy. It is when a seedling doesn’t have enough sun, so it grows really tall and thin really fast, reaching for light. It is weak and will soon fall right over. Sorry Conan.
I use a 2-Light 48” Fluorescent Shoplight. Definitely go with the 2-light housing so that you can get a greater width of plants underneath. The 48” long light is a good length because it can fit two standard seed starting trays under it perfectly. Oh, and make sure you know if you are getting one that is plug-in or hard-wired, because both are available.
Full spectrum bulbs will mimic the sun’s light and give your little seedling what it needs. They are also available in most hardware stores.
This was surprisingly inexpensive (around $30 for the light housing and two full spectrum bulbs) and absolutely invaluable for starting seeds in our cold northern climate!
My favorite feature is that it hangs from chains that are secured on hooks on the ceiling. This allows me to raise or lower each side, according to how tall the plants are getting. As the plants grow and change, I rearrange them with the tallest on one side and the shortest on the other (notice how the light is slanted in the photo above). They grown at such different rates, and I always want the light to only be a couple inches from the tops of them.
B. Seed Starting Tray
These seed starting trays are great for several reasons. I like that the individual cells are a good size for starting one or two seeds per cell, which is my preferred technique.
My heirloom seeds are too precious to be planting willy-nilly and thinning later. And, I strongly dislike having to pull apart two seedlings when I transplant them. I just want to take the whole clod of dirt along with the little plant and plop it in its next location, with no fuss.
This tray comes with three parts: a solid tray base that catches any water leakage, the containers that fit inside this base with the individual cells (there are 8, 9-celled containers for a total of 72 cells), and a clear cover to allow the light to penetrate but keep the moisture in.
This tray is the perfect width to fit under my light set-up and ensure that all the plants get light. And two of these trays next to each other will fit under my light at the same time.
These trays are less than $10 and will save you time and headache, plus you can use them for a long time. Mine are on their fourth year!
While we’re on the subject- let me tell you what I don’t like. These pots or discs that are made of organic material, and are intended to be planted right in the ground with your seedling in it. My opinion is that they don’t really break down and are somewhat restrictive of the plant’s roots, which are it’s life-force.
C. Seed Transplant Containers
After my seeds have sprouted in my seed starting trays, have grown a couple inches, and developed some true leaves, I will start to move them over to their second home.
But why move them from the seed starting tray in the first place? Since I am in Zone 4, I start my seeds indoors about six weeks before they will go outside (very end of May). By the time these plants are six weeks old, they have waaaay outgrown the little cell. Also, since the cells are so small, they don’t hold moisture well (especially when the plants are so tall that you can’t put the dome greenhouse lid on). So bigger containers ensure the plant has plenty of room to grow and the soil will stay moist enough that I can water them every few days.
Of all the containers I’ve tried, I love these simple plastic 7 oz drinking cups the best.
-they are reusable for several years
-easy to poke drainage holes in the bottom
-just use a sharpie to mark what plant is in the cup
-big enough to house a plant even when it is over a foot tall
-don’t tip over easily when plants get bigger (unlike yogurt cups, etc)
-plenty of room in the cup for great roots to develop
-very pliable for easy removal when ready to plant
One thing I’ve learned about seed containers is that the rate at which the soil dries out seems directly related to how big the container is. These 7 oz drinking cups will stay moist for at least three days in the house. That means less often watering and less work.
D. Pocket Knife
It’s the best thing I’ve found for poking drainage holes in the bottom of my transplant plastic cups.
Do this slow and gently; don’t cut yourself. Once the knife penetrates the plastic, just give it a little twist to make a decent-size hole. I make three holes in the bottom of each cup. This adds drainage and ensures the roots don’t ever become water-logged.
Poke holes in the bottom of the cup before you fill it with dirt, if you don’t want a headache.
E. Soil & Soil Mixing Tools
Erica at Northwest Edible Life Blog suggested that we don’t really need to use “seed starting” mix to start seeds. Further explaining that seeds in the wild would fall to the ground and would likely germinate in regular soil just fine. That made a lot of sense to me, so I quit buying high-priced seed starting mix. Now I just use awesome organic potting soil and think it works just as great.
Starting mix is for just that: starting. Not for growing. If you plan to keep your seedlings indoors for more than a week or two, they will need soil (not starting mix). Using potting soil from the beginning eliminates a lot of extra work and the need to buy two different soils!
The very first year I started seeds, I learned the hard way that if you put dry soil or seed starting mix directly into the tray cells or cups, you will have a really hard time getting water to mix with it. Then, you’ll either make a big mess trying to wet the soil, or you’ll drive your seeds deeper than you intended, or both! Mix your soil with water before you put it in the seed starting tray.
Some people *cough, my mother* might call me a hoarder because I like to save things that I think might be useful someday… things that normal people would throw out. Which is what you see here. This is one of those big plastic containers that lettuce comes in, and it is perfect for mixing up small batches of soil and water. I’d call it resourceful.
There is no recipe: just dump in a bunch of soil, pour in some water, and mix it up well. I like it moist enough to hold its shape if you squeeze it in your hand, but not so wet that it is gloppy.
F. Want to Improve Your Germination Time? Wet Your Seeds!
I’ve never been one to soak my seeds before planting them (except in the case of a few varieties that absolutely need it). It takes extra time, effort, and planning. No thanks.
My seeds have always sprouted wonderfully, and I attribute that to this technique:
After filling the container with your moistened soil, place your seeds on top. And before topping the seeds with soil, use a spray bottle to give them a good soaking first. This just ensures that they get plenty of moisture directly, and don’t have to suck it up from the dirt around them (above all, seeds need moisture to germinate). Then proceed as you normally would, covering them with soil.
Some people may choose to fill the cell entirely with soil and then poke the seed down into it. I like to cover the seeds with soil because in addition to being able to spray them with water, I think it allows for more depth control.
Another technique that will really speed up your germination rate is a seed tray heat mat. It sits right under your seed tray and gently warms the tray and soil, which encourages your seeds to sprout quickly!
I only have one heat mat, and I refuse to buy a second. To get around this, I only sprout one tray of seeds at a time. After about a week when all the sprouts are up, I start a second tray and move the heat mat to that one.
G. The Fork
Yes, the humble fork. I have discovered that this is the perfect tool for lifting a seedling and its dirt clod from the seed starting tray cell and into a bigger cup.
H. Seed Starting Chart
I’m sure many of you just sprinkle seeds wherever- you’ll know what they are when they come up. Not me, nope. I want to know exactly what plant is where and how many of each I have. I want to keep track of who has germinated and who is being a slow-poke.
Using a seed starting tray with individual cells makes this easy. I simply draw a rough sketch of the seed tray and come up with an abbreviation for each plant name.
This might be borderline obsessive. Please tell me that someone else out there does this too… anyone?
Another thing I use this chart for is to keep track of any seedlings I’ve monkeyed with. In the rare event that I am a bad seed-mother and neglect watering them for too long, I might need to help a few out. Or if there are any that simply aren’t coming up, I will mark that I have replanted them.
The final mark that I put on my chart is to circle the name when I have moved it out of the seed tray and into a bigger container. You think you’ll remember, but you won’t. Did I move this seedling, or is nothing coming up in this cell? See? Just check the chart!
Oh, and since these seed starting trays are palendro-matic (that’s a word, I promise) and look the same from all sides, I leave the top left cell empty so I can tell which side is up. This is a result of a traumatic seed starting experience a couple years ago, when I moved my seed tray and then didn’t know which side was up. All my hard work and chart-making was for not. It was kind of the same feeling you get when you drop a dozen eggs on the floor. You haven’t done that either though, I’m sure.
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