Starting Seeds

Hello, my name is Jenn. . . and I’m addicted to seeds:
Seeds on the Table

Yup, that’s right. . . I have a problem!  I just love buying seeds.  Those gardening catalogs that start arriving around January are like crack to me.  Half price seeds late in the gardening season?  Yup, those too.  And then to make it even worse I’ve started to save my own seeds.

The problem is that there are just so many interesting varieties of plants available.  Carrots aren’t just carrots you know.  There are little tiny round ones.  Tall skinny ones.  Half longs.  Yellow.  Red.  Purple.  White.  Who could resist?  But there is only so much time, and only so much space in my garden.  Those seeds on the table?  That’s what it looks like when I actually restrain myself!

Inventory of Seeds

Once I’ve pulled all my seeds out of the fridge (they live in the basement fridge in resealable baggies–I toss in dessicant packets sometimes) I have to actually figure out what I’ve got, and when I can plant it.  Some things can be planted directly in the garden in early spring.  Some plants require a longer growing season then you have, so you need to start them indoors.  I made a big list that included the types of vegetable, when they can be planted out, and how long they take to mature.  I needed to know this information so I could decide what would go in the garden when.

Saved Bean Seeds

Here are some of the beans I saved myself!  A note on storing seeds–while keeping them cool, dry and in the dark can legnthen the storage life of many seeds, each type of plant has a different legnth of time that it’s seeds remain viable.  The best way to check on that is your good old friend Google.   (There is also a nice chart at Away to Garden).   A few things are known to have a super short storage life–onion seeds for example only last a year.  Others last a very long time–there are stories about a guy successfully sprouting wheat that was found in Egyptian tombs!

In general seeds will last several years–but their “Germination Rate” might decrease.  Germination is when the seed actually sprouts.  So while initially you might expect almost every single seed in a package (or that you saved) to sprout, as time goes on you have a higher “failure” rate.  My solution?  Just plant more then you think you will need in order to take that into account.  If you wind up with extras that you’ve started in pots, give them away (or–horrors–compost them).  If you have extras in the garden then you will have to bite the bullet and thin them.

Now, back to the seed starting.  In the past I’ve actually started some seeds in February and nursed them along, potting them up into larger containers as they outgrew the little ones they were in.  I spent a bit portion of the late spring lugging flats of seeds in and out of the basement to harden them off.

This year I got behind (life you know) and actually started my seeds about 9 weeks before our last frost date–which is what all the packages say anyway.    It was a lovely day so instead of doing my planting in the damp cool basement I hit the back deck.

Starting Seeds 1

For my planting medium I used organic seed starting mix.  Seed starting mix is different from potting soil.  Your seed is a nice little package with all the nutrients it needs to get going–so your mix doesn’t actually need a lot of  “nutrition” in it.  It also needs to retain moisture well without becoming too soggy.  I just buy the mix to be safe–I’ve seen recipes out there for making your own seed starting mix–one of these days I’m going to try that myself.

Since there is a lot of peat or coconut coir in most seed starting mixes (and that takes a while to absorb water) I like to premoisten my mix by opening the bag and pouring some warm water in the night before–giving it time to  hydrate.  Then I simply fill my containers and follow the directions on the packet for the seeds planting depth.  Typically I plant 2 or 3 seeds in each container–that’s insurance against germination problems.  I’ll cut cut out the extra seedlings with a pair of scissors once they develop true leaves.  Cutting is better then pulling–if you pull the extras you might damage the little baby roots of the seedling that you are trying to keep!

Don’t forget to label your plants!  I used to just label the “6 pack”–but then if I was planting them in different parts of the garden I didn’t have a way to mark which plants were which.  Now I label each individual cell.  This year I used some store bought labels I was given, and then made some by cutting up a large plastic yogurt container.

Starting Seeds 2

Seeds need moisture and heat to germinate.   Notice I did not say they need light–the seeds are under the dirt.  Light is irrelevant at this point.

I water them from the bottom (my actual pots are then set inside a bigger tray that I pour the water into so that it can wick up) Then I cover them to keep the moisture in (I used plastic wrap this year.  In the past I’ve also covered them with clear plastic garbage bags).  This year for the first time I purchased some heat mats for seed starting, so I plugged those in and set the trays on them.  Man–that really made the seeds pop up quick.

Starting Seeds 5

When the seeds start popping through the soil I get all excited!  Once they have leaves they need light–but they no longer require as much heat.  I move them down to the basement to the shelving unit that my lights are set up on.  Most sources say that your seeds should get 12-14 hours of light–I try to remember to plug them in when I get up and unplug them at night.  I used to have a timer that I plugged them into, but I think that got packed up with the Christmas lights :)

Starting Seeds 4

The lights need to be kept about an inch above the plants.  My lights are on chains, so I can lower them, but with some of the smaller plants I just use a box or whatever comes to hand to raise up the plants closer to the lights.  I continue to keep them moist (but not drenched) by watering them from the bottom.  (there are fungal diseases that you can have problems with watering from the top so I always err on the side of caution).  Your little seedlings will lean towards the light, so it’s a good idea to rotate the trays around so that they change direction.

When my seedlings have developed their second set of true leaves I’ll start feeding them a half strength liquid fertilizer(the initial leaves that pop out of the seed are not the “true” leaves–you’ll be able to tell the difference, trust me).  Don’t think that you can give them a boost with extra fertilizer–that would be like feeding a baby a prime rib.  They are delicate and young at this point–you could actually cause problems!  I like to use liquid fish emulsion diluted down (it smells nasty though).  Miracle Gro has an organic liquid fertilizer that is made from fermented beets that would probably be pretty good as well.

When we are within a week or two of planting out (Memorial Day around here) then I will start “hardening off” my seedlings.  That’s basically getting them used to the real sun and elements.  You bring them out into the shade for just a couple of hours at a time for the first few days, then you start putting them in sun for a bit, then build it up until they can take the real world.  I’m hoping to be able to harden them off for just a few days here shortly and then move them into my cold frames (still in their pots) until it’s time to plant them out.  That’s one of the benefits of having cold frames–it should keep me from having to lug flats in and out of the basement for weeks!

So who’s starting seeds this year?  Does anyone have any tips or advice they can share on how they start seeds?

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