Looking out my window this morning you wouldn’t think spring is on its way, we have a couple of inches of new snow. But now (Late February & early March) is the time to start thinking about getting you seedlings started for any Zone 5 or 6 garden. Seed starting, like most things in gardening, is not an exact science. You will find a bunch of differing advice on how best to grow your seedlings. There are how ever some fundamental things that you should do to get your seedlings off to a good start. Over the next couple of days I will discuss what has worked best for me and will hopefully help you as well. So today let’s talk about all the prep work and planting.
New seedlings need light. So you need to think about how you are going to provide that light. If you have a south facing window in your home you can grow your seedlings there. I have seen many people have great success starting in a South window (of course for my readers in the Southern Hemisphere this would be a north facing window). In my opinion any other windows in your home will not provide enough light to grow strong seedlings. I’m sure some of you will disagree, but if you really want to be successful with window starts south facing is best!
What if you don’t have a south facing window (like us)? Then you will need to plan on providing some artificial light. That light is usually provided in the form of florescent tube lights. Don’t get tricked into buying super expensive grow lights. Simple inexpensive tube lights in a couple of different colors (i.e. cool white & warm white) is really all you need.
Your set up can be as simple or as complicated as you like. When you are just starting out you could simply hang a shop light from the ceiling. The key is to be able to adjust the height of your lighting. At first you will want the lights to be right next to the emerging seedlings so be sure that you can adjust that height.
This is our current seed starter. It has 4 lights with room for 2 more underneath and all the lights are hung on chains that can be adjusted. We have been really happy with this set up but for several years we simply used one light hanging over a makeshift shelf. If you are just starting out, make it simple, build up your skills before you spend more time and money on fancier equipment.
You can start seeds in just about any thing that can hold some dirt and has holes cut in it for drainage. Over the years we have accumulated a big stack of seedling containers and have used them all with varying success. Any thing from yogurt cups to rolled up news paper works. Soil block makers are also becoming very popular along with small peat pots and peat disks.
For the last 3 seasons I have settled on using old flower cell packs. They are very convenient to use, they drain well and can be used over and over again. Plus if you ask your family and neighbors to hang on to them for you they can be free!! And I’m cheap so I always go for the free option! Plus I figure they work super well for all the big commercial operations so I should go with what works!
You need to be sure what ever you use, that they are clean! At least once a year I take all my containers and scrub them out really well. I then soak them in a mixture of water and a little bleach. This disinfects them so that they aren’t carrying any residual plant diseases. After they have sat in the bleach water for a few minutes I rinse them very well to get all the bleach off and they are ready for another seasons use.
In addition to the smaller containers I also like to have a larger container to place them in. Depending on what type of plants I’m starting I may water them by filling the larger container with water and letting it soak into the holes of the smaller pots. So your larger container should hold water! I have found some trays at our local farm store that work pretty well. They are not quite as rugged as I would like but they are pretty cheap, so I’m using them for now until I come across a better option.
A good seed starting mix is very important. The mix should contain about equal parts of compost, peat and pearlite (or vermiculite). Some folks like to make their own, I haven’t been that ambitious yet so I simply buy a good organic mix. Be sure it comes from a reputable company and that it is certified organic. Even if you are not overly worried about organic growing you should buy certified organic seedling mix as this assures that there are no herbicides in the mix that may inhibit your seedlings growth.
I usually fill my containers nearly to the top with the soil and press it down just slightly. You don’t want to pack it down super tight as this can effect root growth. I will usually use a spray bottle to moisten the soil a bit and then I simply place the seeds on top of the soil. I then add the prescribed amount of soil on top of the seeds and moisten lightly again with a spray bottle.
I then put the pot in a larger container and water by adding water to the larger container (usually about ½ inch). No matter how I plan on watering the starts going forward I always water them from the bottom like this until the seeds have germinated and have established themselves. This method of watering keeps the seeds from being disturbed and keeps everything evenly moist. I also put a layer of plastic wrap over the top of the containers, this keeps the humidity up. I take that plastic off as soon as the seeds start germinating.
A heat mat is also a good addition to your seed starting operation. Although you don’t have to have one, they do help speed things along. The heat mat warms your soil and makes the seeds germinate faster. Once the seeds have germinated be sure to remove the heat mat, leaving the heat on can cause your seedlings to get leggy. Again a heat mat is not necessary, just helpful. The first couple of season that I grew seedlings I didn’t have a heat mat and things were fine. They cost about $25 to $50 depending on the size.
So now your seeds are planted and you are eagerly awaiting the first seedlings to emerge. Friday we will talk about timing, on going care and hardening off your seedlings.