I’ve been feeling so guilty about neglecting my blog I asked my friend Elizabeth to be a guest blogger. Being the wonderful person she is, she stepped up. Elizabeth has been gardening organically for years, runs a health and wellness business, is a published author and is starting a small market garden this year.
4 Seed-Starting Tips to Help You Grow Your Own
This week marks the “official” beginning of spring. In this gardener’s household, that means one thing. Seed starting. It’s a ritual I look forward to with much enthusiasm. Green and growing things! Oh boy! Perhaps you feel the same way. And yet…
There are the inevitable questions. Let’s consider several of the most common seed-starting questions and explore some possible solutions. Ultimately, you’ll find your own “best” ways.
- When do I get started? Count back from when you expect to put your wee little transplants into the ground. Your local extension service should be able to provide an “average” last date of frost. Where I live, that date is May 21. Use the “average” date as a guideline and watch your local weather forecast!Check your seed packet or gardening reference for specifics on how many weeks ahead of transplanting to start a particular plant. I usually figure about 10 weeks for onions and herbs; 8 weeks for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants; and 4 weeks for any squash or cuke family plants slated for transplant. Onions, cabbages, and lettuce are tolerant of cool weather and can go out before the last expected frost date. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squashes will keel right over if exposed to freezing temps. Best to hold them back until conditions improve.Counting back from May 21, now is the time to start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants! I’ve already plunked the first batch of tomato seeds into potting mixture. Due to some germination problems with peppers and eggplants last season, I’m running an experiment and sprouting those seeds prior to planting this year. Hopefully they’ll be ready to plant in soil by the coming weekend.
- What medium should I use for seed starting? This is somewhat a matter of personal preference. Some people use compost exclusively. It’s free, a big plus! If you want to go the compost route, you do need to plan ahead. In the fall before things freeze up, shovel up your compost into buckets or containers and make sure you can get to it when you need it. Another alternative is to buy a commercially prepared seed-starting mix. Most of the seed catalogs offer their own favorite mixes by the bagful. Bear in mind you’ll be paying to ship soil to your location from theirs, and soil tends to be heavy. You can also check with any garden centers in your area. If organic soil is important to you, be sure to ask questions. You do not need a chemically induced “miracle” in your potting soil. Seeds are little miracles all by themselves and will germinate in nearly any warm, moist environment.For my own seed starting, I usually create a custom mix in one of those big tubs. I start with Eliot Coleman’s recommendations (see his book The New Organic Grower) and temper it according to what’s available. The main ingredients are coir (coconut fiber) or peat moss, compost, and perlite or sand.
- What kind of containers do I start my seeds in? I’ve tried any number of options — from little troughs to peat pots to recycled yogurt containers. Over the years, I’ve acquired a whole stack of lightweight plastic flats to use as trays. I now use these as the collector of smaller vessels, employing one of two different strategies.
For ease of transplanting onions and herbs, I like to use soil blocks “straight up” with no container. Just place them directly in the trays. You do need a soil blocker tool to make them; I was lucky enough to get one for the holidays last year. Eliot Coleman’s soil mixture is great for making blocks — being high in coir or peat moss, it holds together well.
For most everything else, I use 5 oz or 7 oz clear plastic cups. Poke drainage holes in the bottoms with a hot nail. (Hold it with a pair of pliers, then heat over a candle.) Add damp seed-starting mixture, and then pop in the seed! When the plant gets too large for the container — in the clear container you can see the roots reaching out — then pot it up to something larger. Larger cups may work, or pot up into re-usable plastic pots, cut-off half-gallon milk containers, or large yogurt or cottage cheese containers. Just remember the drainage holes!
4. What about heat and light?
When I first started seed-starting, I lived in a small condo with just one sunny window. I also had two cats. Nonetheless, it was possible. Using a little ingenuity, I rigged a shelf that hung down from the curtain rod in front of the sunny window (out of reach of the cats) and placed the new starts on that. My space needs were modest at the time, because I only had a very small garden. Nonetheless, it filled the bill.These days, I start more seed. A couple of seasons ago, I made a two-shelf starting cabinet out of a bottom tray, a few pieces of 2 x 2 lumber and some ¼ inch bolts. Shop lights hang from the tops. Up to three flats can slide in on each of the two shelves. The whole contraption is covered with plastic to conserve heat and humidity. The starting cabinet sits on a table-top in my daylight basement.
Fluorescent lights on a 16-hour timer give off enough heat to increase the area above room temperature by 5–10 degrees—into a nearly ideal germination range. Once green starts to show, I remove the tray covers and let the seedlings keep growing until they’re too tall for the shelves. At that point, they rotate out to a different spot and something else takes over in the warm cabinet. The lights are not needed for germination. This solution won me over because of the warmth factor, and because it’s so easy to simply remove the tray covers and give the new plants their light.
There are other alternatives for providing a warm spot for seed germination. Some people like to place seed flats on top of the refrigerator, a reasonably warm spot in most homes. Another option is seedling heat mats. They do work, though they’re a bit expensive. I even know someone who puts an electric mattress cover on the bed in her guest room and places germination trays on that. While I can’t personally recommend that strategy, it is creative!
Bottom line is this: Seeds really want to grow. They need just a few things: a growing medium, moisture, and a little heat. Once they sprout, they also need light. As your plants continue to grow, you might add some fertilizer to their water every couple of weeks. (Fish fertilizer works great; keep in mind it is rather aromatic). Finally, give your inside starts an opportunity to harden off gradually in the outdoors before your final plant-out. They’ll thank you by thriving in their new home!
There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of knowing you grew your lunch all the way from seed. Pleasant gardening and many happy tomatoes!
Elizabeth Eckert is a healthy living geek and organic vegetable gardener. Healthy living is easy with tips from her Healthy Living DIY blog.