We’ve been in winter for months now, and if you’re anything like me then you’re itching for spring to arrive. In its anticipation, we can either wait out the last cold and wet days or we can get a jumpstart on the planting season while bringing a smile to our faces. Below you’ll read about the rules, tips, and tricks which I’ve come to follow when starting my own seeds.
Tip #1. Start Small
Seed starting may seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the keys is to start small. Begin with a small variety and quantity of plants. Twelve plants total is a good starting point. Each year or season as your confidence and experience grows add a dozen more plants to the mix.
Tip #2. Plant Selection
As a general rule you’ll want to select plants that transplant well. It’s best to avoid any root vegetables, as these are best sown in place. Leafy and above-ground producing plants such as lettuces, tomatoes, and peppers make for wonderful seed-starting plants.
Tip #3. Starting Mix
You’ll want to pick up a fresh bag of a seed starting mix. First, it’s specifically designed for this task and will help produce better plants. Second, by resisting the temptation to save a few dollars and either use last season’s leftovers or soil from your garden you will cut out the chance of spouting flies, bugs, or other insects that can wreak havoc on your seedlings and your home. The cost of a fresh bag of seed starter mix is well worth the cost.
Tip #4. Containers
You’ll need something to put the mix into and grow your seeds in. Here is a place where you can save some dollars and get creative. I began with washing and reusing solo cups and yogurt tubs, then I saved planting containers from previous plant purchases, and then after years upgraded to soil block makers. Ultimately what matters is what makes your life easiest. When you’re starting out upcycling and thoroughly washing containers is a great way to test the waters and save some money. As you begin to produce more seeds a more efficient means like planting trays or seed blocks is a worthwhile investment.
Tip #4. Trays
Now you’re going to want some kind of tray with a lip to put your containers in. This is to contain the dirt and water that will inevitably fall and drain out. The lip is the key here. I’ve found small ones such as reused cafeteria trays to be my favorite. They are a manageable size which allows you to easily move your plants around and keeps water more contained. I once used a dog crate liner and that didn’t turn out so well. Smaller is better.
Tip #5. Planting Your Seeds
Not all seeds are created equal. They like different planting depths, some like to be covered and others uncovered. It’s best to read the planting instructions on the back of the seed packet. It’s also helpful to plant two seeds per container. One may sprout and the other may not. You can always remove the lesser of two but you can’t go back in time and plant another.
I’ve found that #2 pencils are a great tool to have in your seed starting kit. The eraser end helps make a nice divot for the seeds to go in, and with the right amount or pressure, you’ll get the desired planting depth. The pointy end is very useful for picking up a seed or two out of the packet and surgically placing it in the divot. You may find that dabbing the pointy end in water helps with the process. #2 pencils or similar objects will help you become very efficient at planting seeds into their new homes.
Tip #6. Lighting
A one-time investment into a quality light, adjustable stand, and timer is the best place to spend your money. This trio is the foundation of your seed-starting setup and will play a major role in the success of growing quality seedlings. Almost any cheap McGuiver setup you can imagine just doesn’t quite compare. Plus if you get a larger light and adjustable stand in the beginning you’ll allow yourself some room to grow more plants as you become a more seasoned grower.
As a rule of thumb keeping the light six inches away from the soil or top of the plant at all times is key to growing quality seedlings. As your plants grow you’ll either need to raise your light or lower your plants to maintain that distance. That’s why a light-and-stand combo is a wonderful and easy way to go.
Like all things your seedlings need sleep. Getting a simple timer is a modern-day must. It keeps you from forgetting to turn the lights on in the morning or off at night. You may already have one packed away with your holiday lights.
Tip #7. Watering
In a perfect seed starting setup, I’d want to mimic the misters in the produce section of the grocery store. Realistically for me, that setup isn’t going to happen, but I can get close and so can you. A quality spray bottle for $4.00 dollars and a timer on my phone will remind me to check on my plants during the day and water them too. The goal is to keep the soil moist, not constantly soaked, and not dry like the desert. Overwatering and not letting the soil dry out runs the risk of root rot, and potentially creating a hospitable home for pests. Only mist the leaves and skip soaking the soil, and your plants will inevitably dry out. Watering isn’t difficult but it is the ‘art’ that you’ll need to develop to grow quality seedlings. Be consistent and thorough, and you’ll do great!
Tip #8. Getting Some Sunshine
At this point spring is approaching, your seedlings are looking really good, and it’s time to start introducing them to the outside world. The key here is to start in small increments and only set them out on sunny warm days. Remember those small trays I recommended earlier? This is where they shine. You’ll want to carry your young plants outside for some sunshine; at first only for an hour or two. The more sunny days there are the more time they can spend outside getting used to the sun, wind, and other natural elements.
From experience, I would recommend setting a reminder on your phone to bring them back in before nightfall. On more than one occasion life has happened and I completely forgot my young plants outside only to find them frozen and dead the following day. Be careful not to repeat my mistake.
Tip #9. Timing the Last Frost
Spring is here! The time to plant your babies in the ground where they will grow up to produce delicious fruits and vegetables is here, or so you think. How can you really be sure that the last frost has already happened? Truth is, you can’t. You can however have a Plan B, and that plan is Low Tunnels. Low Tunnels are temporary greenhouses that you erect over your plants on nights that are going to fall below 40 degrees and remove them in the morning. They can be made easily and cheaply with thin bendable pvc pipe and a six mil clear plastic. These Low Tunnels will act as an insulator from frost and wind on those cold nights saving your precious young plants. Being prepared ahead of time for a last-minute frost is the best way to ensure your plants grow to adulthood where they produce an abundance of food for you and your family.
I hope that this guide from personal experience on starting seeds indoors has given you some good advice, and that your time spent growing will be pleasant and enjoyable.