Phase three in preparing your Spring garden: seed starting

>> Wednesday, January 9, 2008

There are basically four phases in spring garden preparation: cleaning up the fall garden, seed selection, seed propagation, and pruning. Of course, you could just buy plants and skip the seed thing altogether, but, come on, where’s the challenge in that.

Starting plants from seed, ranks as one of the most satisfying aspects of gardening and it adds another dimension that further claims your ownership in your garden. You can proudly say “I grew these plants myself, from seed”. It also lets you expand the gardening season by getting yourself into the fray earlier in the year.

I must confess, starting seeds indoors is something that mystified and intimidated me for many years. The process itself is not so much the mystery, no, I’m talking about the ability to raise the seedling from its first tiny starter leaves to its first true leaves and on toward being an individual plant that creates fruit and flowers and more seeds to replicate itself. That whole process is fascinating and no one who can call themselves a gardener can not be touched by that miracle.

I have never had an ideal place in which to start seeds. One year, I came to the realization that if I wait for the ideal location then I would probably never get started.

It seems everywhere I looked for advice, for the equipment needed, i.e. the table, the lights, the trays, the soil (or soilless) mixtures, whether it was online, in books, etc, what I saw was this process that required perfect timing and an intuitive knowledge of what plants need. I was convinced that if something did not happen just right or at just the right time then everything would be lost. It was bloody daunting! I thought, I’m not going to spend money to do something that I have no confidence in ever pulling off only to have to buy plants anyway. So, I just bought plants. Let someone else deal with the hassle.

A few years ago, after reading a multitude of success stories, I decided, what can I lose? I’m not getting any seed starting experience by not doing it. So, I jumped into it and none of the plants I started that first time made it. I was introduced to a nasty little fungal surprise, known in the gardening world as, “damping off”. Okay, maybe I didn’t follow all of the instructions to the letter and I was correct in assuming that if something goes wrong at just the right time then the whole thing is lost. But I learned from it and now provide heat and air circulation, the best defense against “damping off”.

With that experience under my belt, I was more determined that this was going to work. And I now grow pretty much all of my vegetables from seed. So, in hopes that you won’t have to suffer this same misfortune, and want to expand your gardening experience by becoming a seed-starter here is what I have learned.

Truly, anyone can grow plants from seeds. When you start them in winter for the purpose of setting them out into the spring garden, they need to be big enough and strong enough when the time arrives. On every seed packet you will find the length of time a seed takes to grow to maturity. This amount of time is counted backwards from the ‘last average frost date’ for your area. This is when you start your seeds click here for a website that helps you determine your date.

Determining this date is not an exact science, that why it is called ‘average’. Your plants will be fine if they have to wait a little longer, plus there are measures you can take to protect your transplants if you set them out too early, such as, cloches, wall-o-water, milk jugs with bottoms cut off, bed sheets, etc. All you really need to worry about is getting frost on the plant. A good rule of thumb is if the night time temperatures are above 32F for about five days in a row you should be okay, but we all know how Mother Nature can pull a fast one.

The basic equipment needed is a standard propagation flat, a clear cover (called a humidity dome), plant pots, seed-starter mix, light fixtures and fertilizer.

Propagation flat – preferably without drainage holes, these are where you will place your plant pots. The tray measures roughly 22” long by 11” wide and about 2” deep. This is where the plants will most likely stay until you set them into the garden.

Plant pots – these come in a wide range of sizes and materials. There is no standard seed-starting pot, traditionally they are plastic about 4” deep and 3.5” square singles or six-packs. You can place 12 six-packs in a tray to get 72 planting ‘holes’. Also, there are peat pots (square- and round-singles and 6 packs and strips), peat pellets.

You can use typical plastic containers found in your kitchen, such as these examples.

You can even make your own out of newspaper or cardboard. The important thing to remember is they must drain well. Soggy soil is a death sentence for seedlings.

The plus side of using Jiffy pots and other biodegradable pots is that the whole container can go into the garden without disturbing the roots. Pulling plants out of their soil to put them into more soil, to me, just seems counter intuitive and creates undo stress, so why not just leave them in their original container? You can also start the seeds in a tray using the pots and the then cut out little squares of soil each with a plant and put these into the garden, again this disturbs the roots too much, in my opinion.

Seed-starter mix, or Germinating Mix - There are many good seed starting mixes on the market. Some manufacturers embellish the basic mix by adding a time released fertilizer or a fungicide, but none of this is necessary for starting seeds as long as you closely follow the necessary steps.

Soil out of the garden is strictly forbidden. First of all it is too heavy so it doesn’t drain well enough. Secondly the soil needs to be as clean as possible to prevent soil-born diseases and fungus from attacking your plants.

The different bags of soil you see in the garden center used to make me scratch my head and wonder what the difference is. Dirt is dirt, right? Well, there is a huge difference between ‘dirt’ and ‘soil’. Soil is refined and formulated dirt. It is a vast improvement. For instance, for seed starting purposes, soil should have a finer texture, be sterile and hold water while allowing air to pass through, that is to say it should ‘breathe’. A soilless mix, typically made up of any combination of peat, perlite and vermiculite, and other ingredients, features all of these attributes for seed starting mix.

Light fixture – Standard fluorescent tubes commonly associated with shop lights work great.

Fertilizer – Liquid is best because it is more readily available to the seedlings.

Now on with the show:
Prepare space for the seed trays. You need a room that stays above 50F at night. If you have a heated garage or space in the basement or even on top of the refrigerator, you can start seeds.

Firmly pack your soil mix into each container and wet it down.
Not so it is rock hard, but don’t leave it too fluffy. When you wet it down the air pockets will aork their way out soil the seeds get good soil contact.

Place your seeds at the proper depth.
Here is one of those points where seed starting can get messy. Just read the instructions on each packet for what is required. Some seeds don’t need to be covered, some require light to germinate, some should be lightly covered and some you push into the soil deeply with your finger. For those seeds that need to be lightly covered, the best trick is to pour some seed in the palm of your hand, pour some soil into your hand and mix it together and then sprinkle this onto the top of the pot.

Some seeds require they be placed in the refrigerator first in order to germinate and some need to be scarified or scratched to break the hard outer shell. It really is best to read the seed packet, plus there is a lot of other good information there.

Cover tray to prevent evaporation.
A propagation dome is perfect for this. If you have a kit the dome should be part of it. Otherwise, you can buy them separately or make one out of saran wrap, just drape it over tight enough to prevent water evaporation.

Remove cover when seeds begin to sprout.
Within a couple of days to a week you should see tiny plants pushing out of the soil. Once the seedlings begin to sprout you need to take the cover off so the seedlings get air circulation, this is what prevents damping off from getting started.

Give them light.
The first leaves you see are actually the inside protoplasm from the seed and not really leaves at all. Its like egg whites in that it provides whatever nutrients the plant needs to get started. Quite often the seed halves will hang onto these first leaves, don’t worry, they will eventually fall off as the leaves shrivel up. The second set of leaves you will see are the first ‘true’ leaves. At this point the plant is totally dependant upon you for everything. So, do it right and you will have healthy, thriving plants.

When these first ‘true’ leaves appear, the plant begins its photo-synthesis and you need to provide light. There is a lot of talk about special plant grow lights with red-spectrum and blue-spectrum getting much play. The best and cheapest lighting comes from the standard 4-foot-long fluorescent shop lights. Either a single tube or two or even three, as long as every seedling gets access. Placing the light about 2 inches above the plants will cause them to grow up at a controlled rate. If you put the light too far away, they will reach for it too quickly and will become ‘leggy’. If this happens, the plant’s chance of survival is greatly diminished. As the plant reaches the light, move the light up another 2 inches and repeat this process until they become bushy and are ready to go outside. The bushier a plant is the better its chance of survival.

Give the plants 12 to 14 hours of light every day. You can also set plants in a windowsill and place aluminum foil walls around the other three sides to reflect light back onto the plants. The danger in this is that the temperature at a window could be colder than the rest of the room. Be sure to move them away from the window at night.

Fertilizer and water.
Now, while these plants are reaching for the light they need food and water. Seedlings are tender so it doesn’t make sense to give them the same strength of food you give a fully grown plant. But you can use the same stuff. Just dilute it by about half and keep the soil moist but not soggy. The fertilizer you use should be in liquid form for best absorption. You can either spray it on the leaves, called foliar feeding, or pour it into the water tray so the roots wick it up.

Keep the soil damp enough, but not soggy. Someone once equated the perfectly moist soil as the consistency of a fresh slice of bread. That seems a fairly easy test. If the plant dries out, it will perk up with water but its growth has already been stunted and will most likely not be as strong as it could have been.

People use all kinds of tricks to help their plants get stronger. You can’t make them grow any faster than they are predestined to grow but if you provide a little cross-ventilation from a fan, simulating an outdoors breeze, they will develop a stronger trunk and therefore a stronger roots system. You can, instead of using the fan, simply run your hand over the leave tops every day or so.

Another way you can help ensure a stronger, healthier transplant is to feed them with fish meal, fish emulsion, seaweed extract or kelp. This is not necessary, you can use the typical standard 10-10-10 just as well but the added nutrients these high-nutrient mixes provide are proven to help develop a stronger root system. Spray the liquid mixture directly on the leaves or from the bottom every other watering. More is not necessarily better so resist the urge to over-feed. Dilute the solution to one-half or less, but use manufacturers guidelines.

This whole process is just a matter of repeating these steps of adjusting the height of the light and fertilizing and watering until the plant is ready to be set outside. This brings up an important consideration. When do you start the seeds?


Ken January 9, 2008 at 10:13 PM  

Thanks for the post Greg, I'm on my second attempt to grow some dawn redwood trees from seed this winter, and I had been looking for some general tips. It looks like I'm on the right track now, but in my first try I basically put a couple seeds in a pot, watered and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, I over watered and even transported them over the holidays. I'm documenting the process at hopefully I will soon have some photos of a great tree.

Greg W January 10, 2008 at 5:57 AM  

Thanks for the comment, Ken. I had not heard of Dawn Redwood so I looked it up, pretty unique tree, it seems it was around with the dinosaurs.

Beautiful BIG tree, grows to 70’ to 100’ tall. Hope you have lots of room.

Quite a big change from your bonsai tree experiment. I’ve been thinking of starting some Dogwoods.

Look forward to seeing some photos. Thanks, Greg.

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