Step-by-Step Garden Seed Starting Guide
Growing plants from seed is a task that offers gardeners a longer growing season to enjoy, and a wider variety of choices. While we offer hundreds of varieties of annuals, perennials and vegetable plants already up and thriving, there are some solid reasons to supplement your plant collection by starting seeds of your own. First and foremost, it's fun! For those who long to play in the dirt, starting seeds indoors is a much needed way to extend the gardening season. Second, the variety of seeds available is vast. Gardeners can grow things that are difficult to find in garden centers. Last, some plants are simply better to grow directly seeded into the ground.
To start seeds indoors, you'll need some basic supplies. These items can be as simple as recycled grocery containers like milk cartons cut in half and plastic wrap, or you can purchase trays with inserts and clear domes at the nursery. Listed here are the items you can purchase feel free to substitute with your own creative solutions.
• tray with insert (cells are usually two, four or three plants per pack) to keep little seedling roots separate and easy to later transplant
• clear plastic dome to keep seeds evenly moist for best germination
• sterile, light soil mix (this is one thing you must purchase fresh every time, as improper soil can be too heavy for tiny seeds, and used soil can contain impurities which will kill seeds or seedlings)
• shop light" or florescent tube lights and grow lights are really unnecessary and are quite expensive hang from chain for height adjustability
• heating pads (optional)
• atomizer or water mister for gently adding moisture to seed flats without disturbing tiny seeds and seedlings
• liquid plant food
1) Germinating seeds
You can purchase pre-filled seed trays with domes at Vinland Valley Nursery, or you can fill your own make shift materials or last year's trays (just be sure they're sterile by cleaning with bleach and thoroughly drying before filling). Use a light, airy soil mix or soilless mix and fill by pouring the soil over the tray or scooping the soil with with the container and then shaking off the excess. Keep it light, and never press the soil into the pots. Once the soil is distributed evenly in the containers, water with a watering can generously across the top until the soil is thoroughly saturated.
Once the seeds are planted, you should only need to mist periodically since the cover will keep the majority of the moisture inside the starting tray. Choose an area to hang your shop lights. Most people find an area in their basement, but anywhere you can carve out space will work. You'll want to hang your florescents from a chain since you'll adjust the lights to hang right on top of the trays. As the plants grow, you'll raise the light units. Regular florescent lights will work just fine, and hanging them just above the soil surface area will also provide needed heat to the tray.
Even heat is very important to germinating seeds. An even temperature of 70º to 80º is necessary to successful germination, and will mean the difference between 30% to 40% success, and 100% germination. Once you've prepared the trays and set up an area with good lighting and heat, you're ready to plant. Plan using the chart of starting dates, and put plants with similar germination times together in trays. Once the seeds sprout, you'll need to remove the domes to prevent "damping off", which is a rot that can wipe out weeks of ork in a single night! If you have plants that sprout in 5 days together with plants that require 2 weeks under the dome, you'll probably have a problem with the early germin-ators damping off. You might also try to plant the quick germinators after the longer ones to get them to sprout within a day or two of each other, though this can be tricky.
Be sure to read the seed packets ahead of time to see if any require soaking, refrigeration or freezing prior to planting. This time will need to be planned into the planting date. When starting some wildflowers, trees and shrubs it is necessary to scratch or crush the seed hull surface before planting to allow the tiny seed to escape it's protective covering. Make divets with your finger to the specified depth in each container and drop in two to three seeds. Depending on the specific directions, you might cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil and mist, or leave them pressed into the surface and uncovered. Generally seeds should be covered with a layer of soil equivalent to the seeds' size (ie. if the seed is a large 1/4 inch sunflower seed, you'll cover it with a 1/4 inch layer of soil). If darkness is required for germination, you should cover with soil and then cover the dome with newspaper or something to block light until the seeds sprout.
When planting seeds that are particularly tiny a different technique is required. Using a tray without cells or divisions, broadcast the seeds evenly across the surface. After the seeds sprout and grow their first set of "true leaves" (the second set of leaves the seedling sets), you'll "prick out" the tiny seedlings into separate containers to grow on to transplanting size.
2) Growing Seedlings
Once seeds sprout, it is of vital importance to provide proper light, moisture and ventilation. Lights hanging properly just above the level of the plants will provide the first requirement, while a small fan might be necessary to helping with the latter. A small clip-on fan is all that's needed, just be sure it isn't directed down on any portion of the trays, but aimed across the top of all of them. Moisture must be maintained carefully, as a seedling can be killed or permanently stunted when allowed to dry out for even a few hours. A tent of plastic can be created over the lighting to pro-vide a "mini-greenhouse" environ-ment that retains humidity in a particularly dry environment. Just be sure ventilation isn't hampered. Heating pads can be left on, as supplemental heat will speed growth. Taking the heat away will not harm the seedlings, however, only slow them down somewhat.
Watch the seedlings for signs of legginess and yellowing. Tall plants with few leaves are an indication that lighting is inadequate. Yellow color is a sign that young plants need supplemental feeding. While newly sprouted seeds won't require feeding, seedlings older than a few days will begin to suffer without the boost of a fertilizer. Begin with a half strength mixture once a week to prevent burning. If leaves drop, back off on the fertilizer! Bland or yellow coloring will indicate a stronger solution is needed. Seedlings more than two or three weeks old can graduate to full strength fertilizer.
Once plants begin to crowd, you'll need to start thinning out the weaklings. Since you've planted two or three seeds per cell to guarantee you'll have plenty of plants, you'll now need to remove the extra plants to allow your seedlings the room they need to grow into healthy, mature plants capable of producing the maximum number of vegetables and flowers. Gently remove the extra seedlings being careful not to disturb the roots of the surrounding "keepers". It is an unpleasant but necessary part of successful seed raising.
3) Acclimating Seedlings
Once the date for planting out is near, begin the "hardening off" process. Young plants must be gradually acclimated to temperature, wind and sunlight to prevent life-threatening shock.
Start by placing trays in a shady spot for a few hours on a windless day. The next day, go a half day in part sun. Next try a half day in full sun (be sure plants don't dry out in their small compartments), and so on until they've spent the night and a full day outside. Then you're ready to transplant out in prepared barden beds just as you would purchased plants from the nursery.
Odds and Ends
Some plants require pinching to promote branching. Follow the specific instructions on the seed packet.
Transplanting can be done early with the use of Walla Water insulating walls, milk carton covers, straw and other "tricks of the trade."