Spring is just around the corner…in about a month or so, it will be time to get at the task of seed-starting. If you’ve never started vegetables from seed, don’t despair– with the right tools and info it’s a piece of cake. There are several advantages you’re going to have by starting your own seeds instead of buying transplants from your local nursery or mail order. First of all, you get to choose exactly what you what to grow. Nurseries and even mail order places limit the transplants they grow to the most popular and easy to care for varieties. Raising seedlings to transplant size on a commercial scale can be quite labor and money-intensive, and nurseries are interested in making the best profit they can (and can you blame them?). By growing your own transplants, you have infinitely more choice of what plants you can have– you’re only limited by the seed you can get, and the choices can be mind boggling. You’re also going to save money by starting seed– a packet of hundreds/thousands of seeds usually costs the same as a single transplant. Another benefit from starting your own seed, and probably the most important one is the fact that you reap what you sow. You can ensure that your seedlings are getting the best possible care– they won’t wilt (because you’ll remember to keep them watered), they won’t get pot-bound (because you’ll transplant them to a larger pot when they need it), you can select out the ones with disease or pest problems (these are often sold anyway at nurseries) and you can lessen the shock your plants will have by properly hardening them off before planting them outside (reputable nurseries do harden their transplants, but many do not). So now that you’re convinced you should be starting your own seed, how do you actually do it? Read on…
Tools of the Trade
Seed-starting potting mix
Okay, but what does all that mean? They are hundreds of different options for seed trays on the market currently– there are plastic flats, peat pellets or peat pots, newspaper pot makers, etc. There are a couple of points to consider when choosing what you’d like to use. First, how many times are you willing to transplant? Seedlings can grow pretty quickly, and so are going to outpace individual peat pellets or peat pots or 1 inch sized cells in plastic trays pretty quickly. And since they haven’t reached ideal transplant size by that time, you’re going to have to transplant them into a bigger pot at least one or two times before they’re ready to go out into the garden. Aside from size, you’ll also want to think about durability. Buying new supplies every season can be a big waste. I like to choose trays that will last for at least several seasons. This is better for the environment (less trash to throw away at the end of the season) and better for your pocket book too. And let’s admit it, looks play into this at least a little bit, especially for me, where my seed-starting area and planting space are part of my every day living space. So something that looks good and uniform might be an important consideration for you. My personal favorites for seed starting are the Sow & Grow seed flats. These are very popular in England, and are sold by Veseys Seeds (www.veseys.com) in the United States and
Canada. I prefer them for a couple of reasons– they are an incredibly durable heavy-weight plastic, they come in a bright lime green color, and they sell many sizes and configurations. You can buy each of the components (drip tray, seedling inserts and clear, vented dome lids) separately or as pre-fab kits. They are also reasonably priced. So they look good, will last at least several seasons, are affordable and meet my needs for seed starting. This year, I got 2 of the Sow & Grow Windowsill Propagator Sets. Each set cost $7.50 and included a long, narrow window-sill sized lime green drip tray, 5 6-celled black seedling inserts and vented clear lid. So I will be able to start 60 seedlings this year, which is way more than the Apartment Farm currently has capacity for. 🙂 You can also use 1 or 2 liter plastic soda bottles cut to size, which I think also work great and look good. But I fell in love with the lime green this year.
Okay, so now you’ve got your containers and you need to think about soil. Whatever you do, do NOT put dirt from outside in your seed-starting trays! You’re bringing in weed seeds, and any soil-borne diseases from outside in that way. Dirt from outside will also dry out very quickly and get a crusty layer on top when used inside, making it difficult for plants to get a good start. You want to provide the best environment for your seeds, so you want a light, sterile mix for your seeds. You can buy it pre-bagged at most nurseries or hardware stores or you can create your own. If you’re going to purchase it, look for a soil-less seed starting mix. If you want to create your own, it’s quite easy. Steve Solomon (of Territorial Seeds www.territorialseeds.com) swears by an equal mix of vermiculite and finely ground sphagnum moss in his book “The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening West of the Cascades”. While we’re not all west of the Cascades (especially here in Chicago) this is a good all-purpose mix that really is great for starting seeds– it’s sterile, holds water well and is light and won’t compact. You can find both of the ingredients at most nurseries or mail ordered online. And just as there are many gardeners, there are also many different kinds of seed-starting mixes, so Google it or read a few books to get some ideas and then experiment a bit to find the one that works the best for you.
For a soil scoop, you can use any large spoon or scoop you might have. You can cut a small bleach container into a nice scoop by carefully cutting half of the bottom off, leaving the neck and handle in place. This also works as a funnel when you remove the cap, which can be useful for getting soil into smaller containers. I happened to find a heavy plastic Fiskars soil scoop at Walgreens for just $1 last season, so that’s what I use.
Water is pretty self-explanatory, but for seed starting I like to have it in a spray bottle. Make sure your planting mix is damp before you start, then give the top of the soil a heavy misting with the bottle is better then dumping in water by the cup full– doing that will likely displace the seeds from their carefully chosen spots in the containers.
And finally, you’ll need the seeds. You can raise pretty much anything as a transplant except for root crops, like carrots and potatoes. Plants like these have long tap roots, which are a “main” root that extends further into the soil than the rest of the root system. Because of this, these plants like to stay where they’re planted. Everything else can be raised as a transplant.
Alright, you’ve got all your supplies assembled and now you’re ready for the fun part. I like to set up a seed-starting station so that I have all the supplies I need at hand and to keep the “mess” contained. Indoors, I like to work at table height, so I set up on the kitchen table. I take off the table cloth and cover the floor underneath the table with paper bags cut open flat– much easier to throw them away than vacuum potting mix out of the carpet. If I’m making my own potting mix, I like to do it a mid-sized metal trash can, and even if I’m not making my own, I pour the store bought stuff into a metal trash can. It’s easier to scoop it out of a can than a ripped-open bag, and the can makes great storage for leftovers. So I set up the can of mix to one side of my chair, put the seed flats in front of me, and have my seeds and spray bottle of water on the table.
First I scoop soil into each of the flats and shake them slightly to let it settle. Then I give each of the flats a good watering to dampen the soil. Then I start planting– most seeds don’t need to be planted at a great depth, so I scratch the soil surface with my finger, drop in a seed or two per cell, and then sprinkle a little soil on top. Once I’m done planting a flat, I give it a good spray from the water bottle to settle the seeds in, and then I place the clear dome lid on top. You’ll want to keep track of which seeds you plant where– you can do this in any way you like– I use a fine tip Sharpie to write the name and planting date on half of a popsicle stick and stick it into a corner of each tray. Then set the flats in a warm spot to germinate– the top of the refrigerator or computer are good spots.
Once the seeds have germinated, move them into good light, remove the plastic tops and keep them watered so the soil doesn’t dry out. Transplant them up to bigger pots if they look like they’re getting too big for their current location. A week or so before you want to plant them outside (if this is what you’re doing with them) make sure you harden them off. If you just plant your seedlings outside one day after being indoors in the perfect, controlled environment you have created for them, the shock of wild outdoor weather (wind, cool temps at night, harsh sunlight) may damage or kill them. That’s why we put them outside little by little so they can get used to it. On the first day, put them out for a couple of hours in indirect light. The second day put them out in direct light, for a few hours longer. The third day, bring them in after dark. The fourth day, leave them out overnight in a protected location (like a cold frame or patio greenhouse). The fifth day leave them out overnight at the garden site. On the sixth day (which is hopefully mild and overcast) plant them out in the garden and give them a good water. In the next few weeks, if you think you’re going to get another hard frost or obscenely low night-time temps, give them a little extra protection with cloches or hot caps. From this point on, it’s gardening as usual!