The Nitty Gritty on Seed Starting

Chantilly Snapdragons have a unique cup-like shape with a delicate, yet, sweet scent.

Written by Jessica Chase

This winter has definitely been a doozy.  Between the high winds, snow, and flooding, I know I am not the only one celebrating that we are only hours away from the first day of spring!  Yes, March is roaring like a lion but it will eventually frolic like a lamb... hopefully sooner than later.  In reality, the buds on the lilac bushes are beginning to plumpen up and the tulips are stretching out from the ground.  Spring is here and summer is not too far behind.  

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During the dark days of winter, seed sowing lets me forget the cold and look forward to the days ahead!

Seed catalogs have been flooding my mailbox for the last few months.  Their glossy photos definitely got me through the dreariness of January.  Seed and tuber orders were placed (probably too many orders) and the seed packets have trickled in my mailbox in place of the catalogs.  Now, it's time to get some dirt under the fingernails and get to seed sowing.  There's nothing like watching the little seedlings grow despite the grey skies. I often find refuge in my tiny greenhouse, where the outside is cold and barren, its cozy and alive in the greenhouse!

Nasturtium seeds, they resemble little brains!

Benefits of starting your own plants from seed:

The thought of starting your vegetables and flowers from seed may seem intimidating at first, but be assured, it is rewarding!  Buying seedlings is easy and definitely faster than starting your plants from seed but there can be drawbacks.  First off, buying seedlings can get pricey, fast!  A few plants here and there is manageable but depending on the size of your garden/yard, the cost can definitely add up quick.  That one seedling can easily cost you more than several seed packets.  Not to mention, those purchased seedlings can come to you diseased, malnourished, root-bound, and overall unhappy.  Then there's the chemicals that most seedlings are slathered in by large commercial growers, such as neonicotinoids.  

Neonicotinoids is a huge mouthful of a word to say, it even sounds gross... and it is.  This is a common insecticide used on many plants in the big-box stores.  Neonic attacks the nervous system of the insects, the goal to target the problematic insects such as aphids.  Unfortunately, this pesticide attacks much more than the undesired bugs!  It has already been banned in Europe and has been blamed for the bee colony collapses in the U.S.  The problem is that this pesticide is absorbed by the roots of the plant and lives in the tissues, eventually living in the nectar and pollen.  The nemonic is not choosy on its victims, the bees and butterflies also fall victim to the pesticide.  Researchers are  finding links to autism and the use of this pesticide.  (To learn more about neonicotinoids click here).   Sadly, there aren't as many regulations on the use of chemicals on plant starts and flowers, since they aren't considered "consumables," (even that tomato plant that's destined to become bruschetta!).  Most of the chemicals remain in the plants tissues, and eventually into your home.  Fortunately, some of the bigger retailers are encouraging their plant start providers to use more eco-friendly and pollinator safe alternatives to the neonic (thank you Costco!).  Overall, the best way to guarantee the safety and health of your garden is to start your garden from seed.

Tomato seedlings growing strong, just a week after sowing!

Tomato seedlings growing strong, just a week after sowing!

If you're not interested in starting plants from seed, getting to know your local growers/nurseries is a great way to source some plants that are sustainably grown and are healthy. If your in Northern Nevada, hit me up come spring! I usually have quite the fun varieties of plants for sell, including sweet peas!  The hunt for sustainably grown transplants are a little more effort but worth it in the end.

For those that have the desire to start some plants from seed, here are some basics to get you started.  The best advice I've come across is to "think like a seed."  Research the plant you want to grow. When does it germinate? When does the plant bloom/fruit?  Where does it grow?  What temperature does it like? Soil?  Understanding the seed and the plant helps us to create the right environment for germination and growing of that seed.

A bamboo skewer is an amazing little tool to use for sowing small seeds.

A bamboo skewer is an amazing little tool to use for sowing small seeds.

Supplies Needed:

This is a supply list needed for starting seeds using traditional propagation trays. With that said, you can use the same techniques when using soil blocks, you may just skip the first three steps that are outlined in the next section.

- Sanitized seed trays or pots of your choice

- Quality potting soil.

What is quality potting soil? It should be fluffy with lots of perlite! There is an argument of whether or not there should be fertilizer in the seed starting medium. I am team “YES!” My go to potting soil is FoxFarm’s “Lucky Dog” they have others in smaller amounts that are pretty amazing too. You can also make your own mix, read our Nitty Gritty on Soil Blocking, which has our soil blocking recipe to get you started.

- Quality seeds of choice

The seeds you purchase do mean everything. Sourcing seeds from reputable companies such as Johnny Selected Seeds will provide you with healthier plants and high germination rates.

- Pencil

- Tags for labeling

- Plastic dome and drip tray

There are many seed stratification techniques that can help germination in certain seeds. These are sweet peas soaking in room temperature water for twenty-four hours before sowing. Another common stratification technique is to cold-stratify certain seeds in the freezer. The cold stratification tricks the seeds into thinking they've wintered over, Bells of Ireland and Larkspur benefit from this type of stratification.

There are many seed stratification techniques that can help germination in certain seeds. These are sweet peas soaking in room temperature water for twenty-four hours before sowing. Another common stratification technique is to cold-stratify certain seeds in the freezer. The cold stratification tricks the seeds into thinking they've wintered over, Bells of Ireland and Larkspur benefit from this type of stratification.

 

Get Seed Sowing!

1. Sanitize trays/pots with warm water and little bit of bleach or distilled vinegar.  A dash of dawn dish soap can be used as well, if there is build up.  Rinse thoroughly and air dry. I cannot emphasize the importance of this step enough! Sanitize, sanitize! This will save you heartbreak from having diseased plants in the end.

2. Moisten potting soil with warm water (warm water activates all the good stuff in the soil).  The soil should be damp not soggy, think "wrung-out sponge."

3. Fill seed trays/pots to the top.  Gently tap the tray onto the table.  This settles the soil and removes air pockets (roots don't like air pockets...). 

4. Label the tray/pot with the variety name of the seed and sowing date.  I recommend using pencil, it won't fade like sharpie or pen in the sun or when getting splashed by water.

5. Place 1-2 seeds per cell/pot. A pencil comes in handy to help make a small indentation in the soil, to plant seed. A good rule of thumb to follow for the depth to place seed in is double the seed's size.

6. Cover the seeds with a little bit of potting soil, vermiculite, or sand.  Cover the seeds but be sure not to bury them!  

7. Place propagation trays into a drip tray and cover with a plastic dome.  If you have access to a heating mat, placing the tray on a heat mat set to seventy-degrees fahrenheit is ideal, for most crops.  Otherwise, place them in a warm area in the house or in your greenhouse.

8. Check trays daily. Try not to drown the seedling with love, if the soil is drying out, give a light spritz of water or ideally, bottom water. Bottom watering not only allows you not to disrupt or displace the tiny seeds but also will begin to train the tiny seedlings that their roots need to go down in search of water.  Once seedlings emerge, remove plastic dome and move tray to a bright area of the house, a greenhouse, or under grow lights. Once again, don’t drown the tender seedlings with love or water! Keep soil moist but not soggy.

10. Continue to check seedlings daily, water when soil appears dry but be sure not to over water to avoid damping off and disease. If you see some mold on top, cut back on water, increase air circulation and you can scrape it off or spritz with hydrogen peroxide. Once seedlings are larger and can handle overhead watering, water either in the morning or early evening.  Avoid getting water on foliage in the heat of the day, it will burn.

Some happy French Marigolds that are about to get watered, it's important to let the seedlings dry some between waterings.

Some happy French Marigolds that are about to get watered, it's important to let the seedlings dry some between waterings.

11.  As seedlings grow, begin to fertilize them weekly with a diluted solution of fish emulsion and kelp. I’ve also had some amazing results with a liquid fertilizer system from FoxFarm, I will provide links at the bottom of this post.  Read the directions of the fertilizer carefully to avoid burning them with nitrogen.  Too much of a good thing can be detrimental.  Also, fertilize in the morning or early evening, out of direct sunlight to avoid burning foliage.

12. When seedlings outgrow their trays, look at either bumping them up to the next size container or, if the weather permits and they are large enough, preparing the plants to be transplanted.

13.  Preparing the young plants to be transplanted outside is referred to as "harden off."  Without hardening off the plants, the plants will be shocked at the sudden temperature and environment change, which may result in death.  To harden off plants, place the trays outside in a protected area each day (partial shade, wind protected).  Watch for any wilt, if wilting occurs, bring the plants back inside.  Gradually add more time each day.  Once the danger of the frost has passed, plants can be transplanted outside.

Nasturtium snuggled with the African Marigolds.

Nasturtium snuggled with the African Marigolds.

 

This is a very basic guideline and is not suited for all varieties of plants.  The seed packet is a wealth of information, some brands are more in depth than others, but overall provide great instructions.  For example, some seeds need darkness for germination, others need light.  Some varieties are best direct sown, others do better as transplants.  You will have many successes but, like everything worth doing in life, there may be some failures.  Relish in the successes and learn from the failures!  I recommend taking notes and keeping dates to have as a reference for the next year.  You will revisit those notations over and over again.

I hope this post helped you on your gardening journey. 

Happy gardening and as alway, I am looking forward to handing you blooms soon!

- Jessica


To get you started, here are some Amazon links of products we have found as game changes in our seed starting journey!