Seed Starting Basics
The reasons to start seeds are many.
- To have starts available on YOUR schedule.
- To have varieties that aren’t available locally.
- To avoid bringing in pests and diseases.
- To have big, healthy starts.
- To save money.
- To continue the chain of saving seeds.
- To have the satisfaction of doing it yourself and being self-reliant.
- For the fun of it.
Types of seeds:
First, gather your tools.
- containers to start the seeds in,
- "soil" (anything light that doesn’t form a crust on top),
- small watering can/jug/bottle,
- misting bottle,
- marking pencil,
- mild fertilizer (I like fish emulsion mixed with seaweed, or John’s Recipe, used half strength)
- and seeds.
- Lights ~ you can do this in a window IF you have a bright enough one (most aren’t), so lights might be a must-have..
- Bottom heat is nice, too, especially for sprouting, but not really imperative if your house is warm enough.
- A cover for the tray to keep it moist (plastic wrap works great and it's cheap).
- Timer for the lights.
- Cold frame outside for hardening off.
A note about lights: Most windows don’t provide enough light. Large, south-facing ones might. If you start to see legginess (elongated stems between each set of leaves), that’s a sign they’re not getting enough light. In that case, use cool white flourescents with the most lumens you can find at the hardware store. Hang the lights an inch above the seedlings’ leaves and raise in small increments as they grow.
Two rules to go by and you’ll do well:
- Don’t plant the seeds too deep: deep enough is twice as deep as the seed is big.
- Don’t let the seeds dry out: after germination, do let the top of the soil dry out, then let the dryness go progressively deeper as the seedlings get taller.
- Fill containers with slightly moistened seed starting mix.
- Plan seeds twice as deep as the seed is big. This means some seeds will be practically sitting on top of the seed starting mix with only a light dusting of mix sifted on top of them.
- Label them. Do this immediately after sowing each type of seed or you WILL get them mixed up.
- Bottom water until all seed starting mix is wet. If this doesn’t happen after 24 hours, mist the top of the seed starting mix with your spray bottle until saturated, or use your watering can.
- Keep warm and well watered and wait.
- When germination has begun, place under lights if they aren’t there already.
- Once seedlings have their first set of true leaves, let top of soil dry out, but only the top. You can begin watering with a half-strength solution of fish emulsion and seaweed once a week.
- Raise lights as needed, but only to one inch away from top of seedlings.
- If starting seedlings individually: wait until they are WELL rooted in their current pots, then lift the root ball out with a fork and pot up into containers about ¼ bigger than their current container, watering in with seaweed.
- If starting seedlings in a communal pot: wait until the seedlings have at least one set of true leaves, lightly grasp by a leaf and lightly pull while pricking under the roots with a pointed object (small fork, tweezers, point of a knife, etc.). Transplant into an appropriately sized pot (small is better), and water in with half-strength seaweed. When well-rooted, pot up again according to the instructions above for individually grown seedlings.
Until the seedlings are good sized (a few inches tall and a few weeks old), only feed with half-strength fertilizer to avoid burning the seedlings.
Hardening off: Gradually getting the seedlings used to outdoor conditions. This takes a week or so.
- Put outside in morning sun for a couple of hours every day, gradually leaving them out longer each day, until they can stay out all day and night.
- If you can’t bring them in and out so often, build a cold frame or use floating row cover - put the seedlings in the cold frame or under the row cover in the morning, then bring them in at night. Over the course of the week, gradually life the row cover or cold frame lid a few inches higher each day until they’re practically uncovered.
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