Saturday, January 28, 2012

Seed Starting Illustrated

It's that time of year again, when seedlings are (usually) taking up space on the kitchen counter, tools spread all over, trays in the way, soil and watering making a big mess.  This year, I solved that problem by setting up my handy dandy new seed cabinet.  I am in LOVE with this thing!  No more are my seeds spread all over the house.  No more are my supplies tucked into all sorts of out-of-the-way places.  No more are my seed saving attempts thwarted by being knocked over while I'm trying to make dinner.  And no more are my seedlings neglected from being out-of-sight-out-of-mind.  This is heaven.

Peppers up top, tomatoes on bottom.
BUT: Every year I try to start seeds and every year I have a problem.  This year's problem was letting them dry out at the critical sprouting stage, caused from too much bottom heat and too little attention.  I bought one of those heat mats from work and set the tomatoes on it to get a jump on their sprouting, leaving the peppers to their own devices since they can go in a little later than tomatoes and still produce.  Turns out I should have done the reverse.  Well, really, I should have watched the soil in the tray on the mat closer ~ it dried out much faster than I thought it would, WAY faster than the peppers.  A week or so later and the peppers are almost all up, yet the tomatoes sprouts are still spotty, as you can see in the picture at right.  Lessons learned from this: watch your seedlings closer than you think you should, or don't get too fancy with your seed starting attempts.

Every day at work, I'm asked the question: "So how do you start seeds anyway?"  I LOVE explaining it!  And will do so in depth here, with gusto (and much loquaciousness, like that's new).  Getting someone hooked on seed starting is almost as rewarding for me as helping them get started growing veggies in the first place.

Let me start by saying no matter how long you've been doing this, you'll have failures (see above).  You're going to screw up.  But these screwups teach you the best way for you to start seeds.  There are almost as many ways as there are seeds.  Some people start them in peat pots, some in egg cartons, some in sifted compost, some in commercial seed starting medium.  You should try them all to find out what works for you.  Here's what works for me (usually... ).

First, gather your tools.  Must-haves are containers to start the seeds in, "soil", labels, marking pencil, misting bottle, watering can, and seeds.  Lights are nice, but you can certainly do this in a window IF you have a bright enough one (most aren't).  Bottom heat is nice, too, but not needed (I learned this year...).  And a cover for the tray to keep it moist is also kinda' handy, but not imperative if you just watch the soil closely to keep it from drying out (if you want to use a cover, plastic wrap works great and it's cheap).

What to start the seeds in: After trying butter tubs, tuna cans, egg cartons, newspaper pots and just about everything else out there, I've settled on one thing as The Best for me: fifty-cell seed starting trays and solid (hole-less) bottom watering ones in the picture at left.  We sell them at work and they're cheap (less than two bucks apiece) and last for years.  The cells in the fifty-cell trays are big enough for the seedlings to stay in until they're ready to plant out so I get to avoid transplanting/potting up (see? Told you I was lazy) and have a crimped edge that adds strength, so they whole thing doesn't collapse as easily as the other non-crimped style when you lift it in and out of the bottom watering tray (click on the picture and it'll open bigger so you can see what I'm talking about).  They hold enough soil that they don't dry out in minutes, and being plastic it helps the moisture stay in, too (newspaper pots dry out pretty darn quick, relatively speaking).  The solid tray is for putting the seed tray in to hold the mess so it doesn't get all over your counters and floors, and it's even better for bottom watering.  Buy one more solid tray than you have seed trays.  I'll tell you why in a minute.

What to fill the containers with: I love the seed starting mix we have at work.  It's called The Germinator (Try saying that with an Austrian accent. *snicker*).  It's finely sifted compost, coir fiber, worm castings and vermiculite.  It's soilless and very lightweight and fine, which is important: regular garden soil, most potting soils, and many other heavy mixes form crusts on top when they dry out, making it hard or impossible for tiny seedlings like lettuce to break through (one of the reasons why we start seeds indoors ~ garden soil spells death for many seedlings).  I also like that The Germinator has a little bit of nutrition from the compost and worm castings.  You don't want a lot of fertilizer in your seed starting mix as it encourages funguses and could harm your new babies.  Feeding them full-strength fertilizer would be like trying to feed a week-old human infant chili.  Not good.  But a little, weakish food like the 1-0-0 of the worm castings?  Good.

Labels are IMPORTANT.  Man, are they ever.  What's the definition of frustration?  Finally finding The Perfect Tomato after years of trying, one that produces extremely well, tastes great, and is resistant to disease, then looking at the label to find out what kind it is so you can Never Forget, and recommend it to all your friends ... only to find the label illegible, blank, or worse, no label at all.  (Cue Famous Actor on his knees, screaming, "Why, God, why?!")  Garden maps, though a really good idea, get lost, or are rendered useless when a plant dies and you replace it, but forget to update the map.  Lists in garden journals are great, but not when you're planting more than one type of red slicer.  And relying on your memory to know what was planted where?  Especially when you're of A Certain Age like me?  Well ... don't.  Just don't.

I like to make one label that will follow the seedlings from starting trays to the garden (more evidence of laziness...), so tough ones are needed.  I've tried just about every kind out there and the best I've found are old vinyl window blinds cut to six inches or so long written on with a wax pencil (aka grease pencil or China marker).  Our intense Texas sun fades out everything, even the supposedly permanent Sharpie marker (!).  Regular pencil writing lasts a little while, but even that fades or gets washed off eventually, usually before the season's over.  The wax pencil on the other hand holds up well, hence why they're used extensively in the nursery trade.  That aforementioned Texas sun also renders most regular labels so brittle that they break when you touch them after just a few months, but not the blinds ~ think about it: they were made for being in the sun for years.  Popsicle sticks rot REAL quick, sometimes before your seedlings are even transplantable size.  Also, they wick up water, soaking and blurring your writing.  So just go for the blinds and wax pencil from the get go and you'll be much happier.

Middle seed has been gently and barely pushed into
the soil with the pencil.
So, you have your tray filled with soil, seeds at the ready, labels standing by.  Now for the planting.  If you heed two pieces of advice, you'll do well: don't plant them too deep and don't let them dry out until the seedlings are an inch or so tall.  You can see why to not let them dry out from my experience this year.  Not only did many of the seeds not sprout, but some that did promptly died, poor little things.  So 'nuff said about that.  But how deep?  About twice as deep as the seed is big.

Tiny seeds contain tiny embryos, ones so small that they won't have the energy or ability to push up through an inch of soil.  Seeds contain plant embryos and enough food for them to reach the top of the soil where they can unfurl their leaves in the sun and start making more food.  If the food in the seed runs out before they reach the sun, they're done for.  Think about bean seeds.  Go get a pinto bean from your kitchen cabinet and break it open.  See that tiny little thing at the very end of one half?  The only "mark" on two otherwise quite smooth seed halves?  That's the plant embryo.  Now look at the two halves of the bean seed.  That's the food store for the seedling.  There's plenty there for it to use to push up through an inch of soil, even one topped with a fairly hard crust.  Now open up those tomato and pepper seed packages.  See the little seeds?  You can imagine how tiny the embryos are and how little food is there for them.  Lettuce seeds are even smaller.  And tomatillos seeds even more so.  So remember that when deciding how deep to plant.  

I plant more than one seed in each cell.  Not all seeds sprout, and not all that sprout are healthy.  Room under the lights is a precious commodity, so don't waste the space on empty cells.  Ensure you'll have a healthy seedling in each cell by planting more than one seed in each.  You can thin them later with a pair of scissors (it's better to cut off their little heads than to pull them out since you'll disturb the roots of the one you want to keep that way, and just might kill it, too).

The following is very important: label each type of seed immediately after planting.  Ask me how I know. *slaps forehead*  Go slow.  Take your time with this.  Plant one type of seed, write the label, stick it in the tray, then double check that the label matches the seed package you just planted from.  Ask me how I know that, too.  *sigh*

After the seeds are all sown, gently ease them into the soil with the butt of your pencil and cover them with soil (remember: only twice as deep as the seed is big).  Be sure to wipe off that pencil butt (heh, heh ... butt) in between types of seeds.  Sometimes seeds will stick to the bottom of the pencil, and when you go to the next cell, it'll plant it in that one.  And you know how Chance goes.  That seed will be a Roma you have six cells of, transplanted into the single cell of of your favorite Black Giant slicer, and that transplanted seed will sprout into a healthy little seedling that will be the only one left standing after you thin.  But you won't know any of this until it's too late, and you see cute little plum-shaped bright red tomatoes hanging off your supposed-to-be-fat-round-purple "Black Giant" plant.  (Cue Famous Actor again.)

Now time for watering them in.  Bottom watering is good.  I fill one of those solid trays a little over halfway with water, gently set the seed tray full of soil and seeds down into the water, and let it sit overnight 'til the water's wicked all the way up to the top.  If it's not wet all the way to the top, I mist it 'til it is or gently water with my watering can.  And here's why I told you to get an extra solid tray: I lift the wet seed tray out and put it directly into an empty solid tray to contain mess and drips.  Handy!

Whatever you do, DON'T use a big watering can.  Buy yourself a cute little one like the yellow one in the picture above.  If your local garden center doesn't have one in the kids' section, I'll bet you could find them in ToysRUs.  Big cans are unwieldy, and you WILL accidentally pour out too much water at one time or another, deluging your seeds with a tsunami that will sploosh your anchos over into the jalapenos.  There goes all the careful effort of labeling.  And if the tsunami doesn't come until the seedlings are already sprouted, it'll still do damage, plastering them down to the soil and causing injury and fungus.  Using a pitcher or glass measuring cup will do much the same.  So just get a little can so you can put small amounts of water exactly where you want them ~ on the soil around the seedling, not on the seedling itself.  And make sure it has a long spout so you can get in between those labels easily.

About lights:  you can certainly try this in an east or south facing window IF it's bright enough.  You need quite a few hours of completely unobstructed sunlight.  Most of us don't have a window like that, so our seedlings will get leggy (really tall with long stems in between sets of leaves).  You can move them outside early on if this happens, putting them in a spot that gets morning sun and evening shade, but unless you have a cold frame to put them in, you'd better watch them close ~ they can dry out fast, get too much sun, not get enough, or be upended by a curious squirrel or pain in the ass dog.  And then there are those days that are just too cold for them to be outside, and the cold nights that will zap them if you forget to move them back in.  Plain old florescent shop lights work just fine so do yourself a favor and get some.  For a more in depth explanation of what kind to get and why, see the last half of my seed cabinet post ~ basically, any cool white fluorescent with as many lumens as is available at the home improvement store.  Cool white bulbs give light in the blue spectrum and that's what's needed for vegetative (green) growth.

Put them up close to the lights.  An inch above the soil isn't too close.  You want to keep them about that close as the seedlings grow or they'll get leggy.  Mine are already doing that a bit, getting tall and skinny from reaching so hard for the light.  Sadly, they'll just have to deal since I can't get the lights any closer due to the labels.  They'll get tall enough soon enough and grow out of that legginess.

When the seedlings get their first set of true leaves, it's time to feed them.  Use whatever liquid fertilizer you have, but only half strength.  I highly recommend an organic one, such as fish emulsion, seaweed, or John's Recipe (has both in it).  The nutrients in the blue stuff are immediately available to the plant, so it's easy to burn them if your math is off when you use that.  Organic fertilizers aren't like that, so it's much harder to overdose them (a nice failsafe for us who are math challenged).  Plus they usually have many more nutrients than just the Big Three (N-P-K), so it's like giving your seedlings a Flintstones vitamin along with their dinner.

When to plant outside:  Most advice says to plant them out once all danger of frost is passed, but if we do that here in Texas, it'll be too hot for them to produce once they're mature enough to.  So I like to get my tomatoes in super early.  Last year, I started planting March 2nd, and this year I'm hoping the seedlings are big enough by the end of February.  Of course it's still cold then and freezes are extremely likely, so I cover them with tomato cages, hang incandescent Christmas lights on the cages, and cover the whole shebang with floating row cover, leaving it on unless temps are above fifty at night and sixty during the day.

Even though temps in the forties won't kill your tomato babies, they won't like it.  It'll stress them out and they won't grow during this time.  If you cover them like I do, you'll get temps much warmer than the outside temps (row cover gives you eight to ten degrees more and the lights add at least another five or ten, if not more than that), warm enough for the plants to actively grow.  Last year, I had almost thirty tomatoes on two Red Brandywine tomato plants by the first week of May.

And that's all you need to know to get started and even have some success.  Seed starting is a bit involved, but for those of us adventurous sort who really love trying not-so-easy-to-find varieties, it opens up a whole new world.  And if you want to save your own seeds, it's a skill that's a must to have.  Remember: you'll likely fail a time or two before you get the hang of this.  That's normal.  Everyone does it.  Even me, years after I started.  Just don't give up and you'll be fine.


  1. Love the information, I am going to start seeds indoors next winter, I will be preparing many beds over the summer to be ready for everything.

    1. Thanks, James! Yeah, you'll need to prepare a lot of beds if you start growing your own from seeds. You will ALWAYS start too many, and there are only so many people who want them.

      Just got finished watching your YouTube videos. Brilliant! I especially love your co-star, Duncan.

      Everyone else: Go see them! You'll learn something. I did.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...