We are starting to have the first signs of spring here in Upstate New York. Warm afternoons where you can skip the hat and gloves, or even (*gasp*) go outside without a coat occasionally. Sure–we could still get a snowstorm or two, and I wouldn’t unpack my Capri’s just yet. . . but it’s starting to feel like spring is possible again.
Now for me, spring means the star of gardening season. I’m not much of a flower gardener–I do simple stuff like a few daylillies and some wave petunias in the front flower boxes. I leave the beautiful flowers to folks like my friend Kathy at Cold Climate Gardening or Donalyn at The Creekside Cook (fair warning–her blog is likely to make you hungry!). Vegetable gardening is where it’s at for me.
There is just nothing that tastes as good as produce right from your own back yard. Even though gardening is quite a bit of work, it’s work that makes me feel good. For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to convince my readers that “This is the Year to Start Your Garden”. I even did a podcast episode on 14 Benefits of Gardening just a few weeks ago with some reasons you may not have considered. (Really, go check it out!)
So when Walmart gave me free reign to pick a spring topic related to their home or outdoor living departments I just could resist the topic of Seed Starting!
Starting your own seeds is a bit of work, but has many benefits. Seeds are far cheaper than purchasing plants for your garden. You can choose from a very wide variety of cultivars (that means types within a particular vegetable) and get different flavors, hardiness, or rate of growth. You’ll find tons of seeds for vegetables that you have never seen the plants offered for–yellow pear tomatoes, orange watermelon, or lemon cucumbers for example. Seed starting also comes at a time of year when there is nothing going on in the garden, so it is fun to have the chance to get your hands in some dirt.
I started out my heading into the Gardening and Lawn Care section of my local Walmart.
There were TONS of seeds. When I say tons, I mean tons. At least 3 or 4 displays the size of the one that I snapped a picture of. Conventional seed. Organic seed. Heirloom seed. Several brands and multiple cultivars to choose from!
Now if you are shopping for your entire garden, then grab whatever you plan to have in the completed space. If you are just doing your seed starting there are a few things to remember. Root crops (that’s anything where you eat the root-think carrots, beets, potatoes) aren’t started inside. They don’t like to be moved so you are going to have to wait until your soil warms up and direct seed them. Ditto for all your legumes (that’s the bean and pea family). Those you direct seed as well. Beans need to wait for the soil to warm up but peas, snow peas and sugar snap peas can be planted out “as soon as the soil can be worked”.
So what can you start from seed? Well, most of the green leafy vegetables (Kale, lettuce etc) can either be planted in early spring like the peas or you can start some indoors to give them a head start. In my neck of the woods the growing season is short, so anything that takes a longer time and needs the warmer weather like squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cucumber all need to be started ahead. Otherwise you might not get any fruit!
I picked up several bags of the Jiffy Organic Seed Starting Mix. Potting soil is too heavy for the little seedlings to grown in so it’s better to start off with a medium that’s used specifically for seed starting. You need something to actually grow the seedlings in, so I got a 72 Cell Seed Starting Tray that was made with a hex shape that’s supposed to do good things for the root system. We’ll see! I also picked up an 18 cell tray. Those pots are much bigger–some of the plants I grow need to be “potted up” from a small cell to a larger pot before they have a chance to be moved outside.
I was very excited to find a seedling heat/propagation mat (don’t worry–I explain what that’s for later) and a seed starting light for sale at Walmart. This is the first year I’ve seen them. I do already own two mats and have some regular florescent bulbs hung with chain so they are adjustable in a special wire shelving unit down in the basement–but this light with stand was just so nifty I couldn’t resist picking one up to check it out.
For seeds I picked up some Early Broccoli and Dinosaur Kale.
I know, some of you are thinking “for a gal who says she loves gardening that doesn’t seem like many seeds”. Well let me introduce you to my basement. Here you can see in my basement an upright freezer, a second refrigerator (the first is in the kitchen) and a chest freezer. Yes, I have a lot of cold storage.
Inside the second refrigerator there are two boxes. And inside those two boxes are a LOT of seeds. Seeds I’ve purchased in previous years. Seeds I bought in end of the year sales. Seeds I’ve saved myself.
That picture of the seeds all spread out on the counter? Yeah–that’s only ONE of the boxes. So I really didn’t need a lot in the way of seeds. But I did use up my broccoli, and a cultivar that matures in 45 days sounded great (hence the “Early” in the name). Red Russian Kale has run wild in my garden–it self seeds every year and pops up all over the place–but I don’t have any of the Dinosaur Kale. So those are what I picked up!
So, now it’s time to plant your seed, right?
First you need to do a bit of research. Two very important dates to know when you are gardening is your average LAST frost date (that’s the date in the spring when you can finally be sure that you won’t get another frost) and your average FIRST frost date (the date in the fall when frost is likely to start killing your sensitive plants). The period in between those two dates is your growing season for all your warmth loving plants like beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash. . . you get the idea.
Here in Upstate NY my average last frost date is May 10-20 and my average first frost date is Sept 20-30, although most folks don’t really feel safe until Memorial Day. Why does that matter? Well seeds only can do well for so long living indoors. The conditions are just different–your artificial light is far weaker than even a watery spring sun. There is no breeze, no changes in temperatures. A seedling started too early inside can grow up to fast, trying to reach the weak light, and not have a strong stem. So it’s important to start your seeds at the right time. Luckily for us–there is a whole load of information on each seed packet that tells you what you need to know. I even wrote a post a few years ago on How to Read a Seed Packet that will help you out!
To be successful at seed starting you need to start with your average last frost date and count backwards the number of weeks the seed packet tells you to know when you start your seeds. My Amish Paste Tomatoes should be sown 5-7 weeks before the last frost (Mar 22-Apr 5th) and my cucumbers 2-4 weeks before (Apr 22-May 6). It’s far too early for any of those.
Most of the brassicas (that’s things like broccoli, cabbage, and kale) are very frost tolerant and can be planted directly outside 2 weeks before the last frost or they can be started inside 7-9 weeks before the last frost. For my area that would be between March 8-15. So I’m a tiny bit early BUT. . . I have cold frames in my garden (think tiny greenhouse) so I can plan inside of those several weeks before it would be acceptable to plant in the garden. A similar situation exists for the kale, chard and lettuces that I started.
So now on to the seed starting. Before I start messing around with my seed starting mix I like to moisten it thoroughly. The mix is not soil–it’s made up of things like peat, vermiculite, perilite and others (depending on which you purchase). It takes a while for water to absorb into those substances, but once it does they absorb a lot and keep moist a long time. If you fill your tray cells up with dry mix and then try to water from the top a bunch of it is going to float away and pour over the sides and make a mess without actually soaking up well. So do yourself a favor, wet it ahead of time. I just slice the bag open, pour the water in, roll it and clip it closed to keep the moisture in. Check it in a half hour or so, mix it around and add some more water if you need to. It should be darkened and moist–clumping together a bit but not soaking wet.
Finally, we are ready to go! I covered my work area with an old shower curtain liner I had–I didn’t want the excess dirt all over my counter. Use your discretion.
1-Take your mix and start spreading it around into the cells. I just sort of pile a big glop on then rub and smooth it around with my hands.
2-They look nice and full, but the seed starting mix is very loose and fluffy in the cells. If you gently press down it will compact some. Don’t squish the heck out of it, just gently press.
3-Once you’ve got them all pressed or tamped down, add more mix and press again. You should be either even with the top or just a bit below it.
4-Get ready to plant. You can use a fancy planting tool like I did–otherwise known as a plastic fork. I like to scrape a bit of soil aside, drop about 3 seeds in each cell, then push the soil back over and gently firm it down. Some people like to use a chopstick to push the seeds in. Do what works for you. Different seeds need to be planted at different depths. In general folks say they should be planted about twice the depth of the seed–but you don’t have to guess. Each seed packet will list the planting depth in the information on the back. These seeds were all 1/4″.
Before you go any further, you’ve got to label the seeds you planted. I like to put the specific cultivar (ie “Dinosaur Kale” instead of just “Kale” or “New Red Fire” instead of generic “lettuce”) and the date it was planted.
So what do you use for your labels? I’ve got a couple of options for you!
A-Purchased labels. These are waterproof, uniform in size and look nice. However you do have to pay for them.
B-Milk Carton. These do sometimes wick water up over time and the writing can run. So not my favorite but useful enough–especially if you don’t need to use the label out in the big garden. They are food safe and FREE. If you don’t use milk or half and half in a carton, probably someone you know does and would be willing to give you a couple from their recycling bin.
C-Venitian Blinds. I bought one Venitian blind at a yard sale for a song and used the slats to make plant markers for something like 5 years. So they are very frugal. They are also sturdy. I can’t imagine that the plastic used would be food safe, so if that bothers you it may not be a good option.
D-Plastic Milk Jugs. You can cut quite a few tags out of a single milk jug. They are sturdy, waterproof and food safe. I like using them and need to make some more! Oh–and they are FREE if you drink milk.
E-Plastic Yogurt/Cottage Cheese/etc Containers. Pretty much any plastic that you can cut and that has a blank side can be used. Because most of those containers are smaller, and have a curve to deal with, it seems to take a bit more work to cut them out. They are FREE, food safe and sturdy.
Whichever option you use, make one side pointed to help slide it into the dirt, and use a permanent marker to do your writing. I recommend fine tip or extra fine tip Sharpie. Walmart has a wide selection, and you can always use more Sharpies!
Now that you’ve planted and labeled your seeds, it’s time to give them another drink. The best way to avoid damping off and other nasty fungus/diseases on your seedlings is to water from the bottom. So gently pour your water into the bottom tray and let it wick up into the cells.
5-Place the plastic cover on top of your seed tray to keep the moisture in. Seeds don’t actually require light until they sprout, but they do require warmth. The funny thing is that many seeds need that warmth to get the seed to germinate and sprout, but then after the little seedlings are up the soil doesn’t have to stay warm. The heat is needed for a limited time. That’s the beauty of the germination/propagation mat. It provides a very low gentle heat to the soil from the bottom which starts the seedlings out right! An old fashioned way to do this is to stick the trays on top of your refrigerator, or near your radiator, or somewhere else that’s naturally warm. My fridge is too high, and I don’t have radiators, so it’s much more convenient to have a mat.
6-The heat causes the moisture to evaporate–you can see that the plastic lid is doing it’s job catching the condensation and keeping all that nice warm moist air in.
7-Once you’ve got the planted and watered seeds on top of the propagation mat it’s a good time to do a bit of record keeping. Trust me–you won’t remember exactly what day you started which seeds and what they were exactly. Sure–you’ve got them labeled, but part of the benefit of keeping basic records is it can help you NEXT year. Did you start too soon? Should you have started earlier? Did a particular type of seed take a lot longer to germinate? If that stuff isn’t written down. . . it’s gone. So start by at least listing what you planted (cultivar name), where you got the seed, and what the date was.
8-Finally, once your seedlings are up you should remove the heat mat, remove the cover and move the tray under the grow light (*You’ll have to imagine that you see little seedlings in there.) The light should be 3-4 inches from the tops of the plants as they grow. Depending on what lighting set up you have, you may have to either raise your trays by placing things under them (support the whole weight if you do this!) or have the light itself on some sort of chain or hooks to raise or lower it. With the light you see here, you could raise the light as the seedlings grow by putting a wide block or brick, or maybe even a stack of books under the supports on each side to raise the fixture.
What happens once I have little plants?
You planted several seeds in each cell. When the seedlings first sprout they will have these different looking thin leaves. As they grow they will put out another set of leaves that will look like the actual vegetable’s leaves. This is called the first “True” set of leaves. Once the true leaves are out, look at your little seedlings and decide which looks the strongest and healthiest. Leave that one and remove the others so that there is just one plant per cell. I like to take a pair of little scissors and clip the ones that are being culled close to the surface of the soil. That shouldn’t disturb the roots of the one you are keeping–pulling out the losers might!
After those true leaves are up you will also need to start providing your little seedlings with some food. In the garden, their roots would run all over and pull the nutrition they need from the soil. In your seedling tray with seed starter mix there isn’t much in the way of nutrients (the seed contained everything the plant needed up till this point). You should water your seedlings with a half strength fertilizer every two weeks until it’s time to plant them out. I try to keep things fairly organic, so I like Alaskan Fish Emulsion even though it’s stinky (mix it up in an empty milk jug at half strength) or Miracle Gro Organic Choice liquid fertilizer. You don’t want something dry.
So there you have it, how to start your own seedlings! You’ll have to wait until late May before I can talk about hardening off (preparing the seedlings in stages to be planted outside) and the actual transplanting!
Disclosure: As a participant in the Walmart Moms Program, I’ve received product samples and compensation for my time and efforts in creating this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own.