The Nitty Gritty on Seed Starting

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

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.  

March and April are wonderful months to start working in the garden.  No, it is not necessary to start weed pulling and shoveling dirt quite yet, but there are still some tasks to be done.  One of the more rewarding tasks: seed starting.

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.  

 Nasturtium seeds, they resemble little brains!

Nasturtium seeds, they resemble little brains!

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.  Through social media and Craigslist, it has become easier than ever to find and purchase from local growers.  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:

- Sanitized seed trays or pots of your choice

- Quality potting soil

- Quality seeds of choice

- 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.

 

Method:

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.

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. Once trays have been sown, place tray in a sink of water or a tub and allow for water to be soaked up evenly.  Bottom water is recommended until the first true leaves appear (these would be a second set of leaves).

8. Place 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.  Otherwise, place them in a warm area in the house.

9. Check trays daily.  Once seedlings emerge, remove plastic dome and move tray to a bright area of the house, a greenhouse, or under grow lights.

10. Continue to check seedlings daily, water when soil appears dry but be sure not to over water to avoid damping off and disease. 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.

 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.  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 growing!

- Jessica