Thursday, May 21, 2009

How to Start Plants from Seed

You've been tightening your belt recently and you've been thinking about ways to save money and so you thought you'd plant a vegetable garden this year along with all of those other folks.

You could always toss some seeds on the ground and see what happens or you could start them indoors. In a protected environment. Away from all of those birds and squirrels.

Yes, I know it's kind of late to write this entry, but I was working on planting my own seeds earlier when I should have written it. So just think of this as being really early for next season or something you can use for the fall planting season.

Yes, fall planting season. Well talk about that later.

I've been planting both flowers and vegetables from seed for years and years now and the thrill never wears off. I've started stuff too early and I've started stuff pretty late. No matter what, it's always worth it for the experience alone, much less the actual food and flowers you get out of it.

The most useful pieces of equipment for starting seeds are:

Pots or flats
Humidity domes

Seed starting mix


Oscillating fan

Shelving unit

Now, you don't need all of the things I have listed to get started. I sure didn't have them when I started out. However, as you go along, you may get tired of spindly seedlings that fall over and look sad and kind of yellow. Here's what I've found out through my reading and my own experimenting.
  • Seedlings demand bright, direct light and wind. These two things will keep your plants from getting spindly. Starting seedlings in a windowsill seems like a good idea, except that the light isn't bright enough or lasts long enough during the time of year when you're starting seeds.
  • If it's terrifically cold outside that window, your seeds might be too cold to germinate on the windowsill or the fluctuating temperatures might be killing off your seedlings. This is where a shelving unit with shop lights comes in.
  • Diluted fertilizer will keep your seedlings from getting yellow.
  • Seeds like high humidity to germinate and often they like heat, too. (BTW, some types of seeds don't need light to germinate like pansies and violas. You'll need to cover those until they germinate.) Here is where the humidity dome comes in handy. The shop lights, in addition to providing light, will also provide just enough heat to start your seeds, but not enough to cook your seedlings.
  • Provide light for 16 hours a day to get your seedlings up and growing fast. Use the kind of electronic timer you plug your lights into to convince burglars that you're home when you're not. (Hey look! Another use for that sucker!)
Armed with all of this information, knowledge of your last frost date (From which date you will count backwards the number of weeks your seed packet recommends you start your plants indoors. That, my friends, is when you should be starting your seeds. Don't do what I did this year.) and a little bit of gear, let's get started.

1. Just barely moisten your seed starting mix. I usually pour it into a big bowl and using warm water and my hands, mix it together like dough. You want it just moist enough that it will take up water when you're done seeding, but not soggy.
Dry as bone on left. Moistened just enough on right.

In case you didn't know, there is an actual difference between seed starting mix and potting soil. Potting soil is a lot chunkier and often has some fertilizer in it. SSM is finely milled and does not have fertilizer in it, generally because your seedlings don't need feeding until they've got true leaves on them and at that point you're either potting them up or moving them outside.
Seed starting mix on left. Potting soil on right.

You can use those take out containers you get from certain stores that have black bottoms and clear plastic tops. Punch a bunch of holes in the bottom to provide drainage. (This is what I started with, years ago. If you check out this picture, you'll note a large range of containers from ice cream pints to peat pellets to takeout containers.) Or, use a 1020 flat with holes nestled into another without holes. Or egg cartons. Whatever floats your boat.

2. Fill your containers with seed mix and tap it sharply on your work surface to settle the mix. Refill and level off the excess soil.

3. Plant your seeds according to the back of the package. A little shallower or a little deeper is not a big deal, but pay attention to seeds that want to be just barely covered or left uncovered. They're usually pretty small, too.

4. After you're done, label everything. This is a key step. Don't forget. I'm telling you - label! All of those seedlings look pretty darned similar when they first come up.

5. Water from below and cover with humidity dome or place in a plastic bag, fill with air and seal off.

6. Place under lights, about 3" away from your light source.

7. Don't water again until the seedling mix looks dry. No, really. Otherwise you'll waterlog those babies and then they'll die. Or else fungus will start growing on top of the soil. The humidity dome or plastic bag will trap all the moisture you need until the seeds sprout.

8. Once your seeds have sprouted, remove the humidity dome (or bag) and turn on your fan. Ensure your fan is actually moving the leaves a little. You don't need hurricane force winds, but if the air around your plants isn't moving at all, the plants won't stay nice and stocky. Also, reducing the humidity levels will help reduce - if not eliminate - water related diseases like molds, fungus and damping off. You can also get the same effect by brushing your hands over the tops of your plants a few times a day every day, but I'm not OCD enough to remember to do that.

9. Grow your seedlings on until they have their first set of true leaves. At this point, if you have a bunch of tiny seedlings all jammed in together you're either going to want to thin them out (Gasp!) or prick them out and pot them up. Personally, I hate tossing out perfectly good plants, so I'm a fan of pricking out and potting up. More on that tomorrow.

10. Congratulations! You now have seedlings! Now it's time to fertilize (once every two weeks) with a dilute solution of a balanced liquid fertilizer. Read the bottle and follow their directions. Write down on your calendar when you're supposed to fertilize your plants again. Trust me.

Now you just have to keep your plants alive until it's time to move them outdoors. Frankly, this is the tricky part.

- - - - -

I was planning on doing sort of a time-lapse photography photo shoot, but time got away from me, as it usually does. Instead, here are a few images to give you an idea of just how fast these babies grow. These are the squash, melons and cucumbers that I decided to start indoors, as a test. Normally all of these seeds want to be started in situ outdoors, but I like to try stuff like this on occasion. Note that the first sprouts appeared on day 3 after planting (Outdoors, it's usually 10 days before they sprout.). These photos start on the 4th day.
Day 4 after planting.

Day 5 after planting.

Day 10 after planting. (I forgot all about photographing them days 6-9. Sorry!)

In case you're wondering what all you're looking at, from left to right:
  1. Cucumbers
  2. Sugar baby watermelon
  3. Charentais melon
  4. Pie pumpkin
  5. Zucchini
  6. Delicata squash
  7. Butternut squash
  8. Buttercup squash
  9. Straightneck yellow squash
  10. Honeydew melon
The best part is, if they fail to take once I put them outdoors, I can just direct seed replacements. If they do take, then I've bought myself an extra week on the growing season and I'll probably fiddle with it more next year.


Melinda said...

Wow, fabulous post!! The fan is genius. Not only would it keep fungus away and strengthen the seedlings, but it would also deter other pests. It seems like you really have the system down - I remember when you were still learning all this - so cool to see us gardeners growing! : )

Woman with a Hatchet said...

Well, I've been learning for awhile, so this is just the formal typing up of what I know so far. There were certain veggies I had never grown before and taking my home garden to a new scale is what I did for your growing challenge.

The fan is wonderful. Everyone should have one!

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