Seed Starting – Tips and Tricks

Or Learn From My Mistakes…

One of the glories of spring – watching those little green bits poke out of the soil, transforming from a hard little pebble into something that may well be able to feed you.  Miraculous.  Especially when it works.  In the past I have not had good luck with starting from seed and it took lots of reading for me to realize that I am not alone.  Most gardening guides tell you right off the bat that starting from seed, while potentially rewarding and money-saving, can be very frustrating.  In the past I have started seeds, used the few plants that worked out, and bought seedlings for the rest.  I have, however, made minor adjustments over the years and for the first time – and I am reluctant to say anything and jinx the outcome – I seem to be growing several plants that might actually survive this process.  So I thought I’d share  what I’ve learned with you while there’s still time – especially for those of you to the north.  Frankly with the way the weather has been, I’m inclined to dispense with my normal planting calendar altogether and just start whatever I want whenever it occurs to me.

For me, seedling success seems to depend most on 4 variables.

1) Temperature. For the last two years I have used heat with my seedlings and it has made an enormous difference in the number of seeds that germinate and the amount of time that it takes for them to start.  I personally use a heating pad (which I imagine is NOT recommended by heating pad manufacturers and is certainly NOT recommended by seed heater manufacturers 😉 ) and if it is especially chilly I also put a space heater next to the seedling rack.  My understanding is that most seeds need at least 70 degrees to germinate.  I feel the trays and if they are mildly warm NOT HOT I go with that.

2) Moisture. Seeds need water to germinate.  Seed starting trays often include a plastic dome for cover and this helps retain moisture and heat, makes a nice little hothouse to help your seeds along.  I use these domes, but have found that the trick is to make sure not to keep the dome over seedlings that have emerged.  The infant seedlings still want moisture, but not as much as seeds, and they don’t especially like a lot of water from the top.  I’ve been careful this year to remove seedlings that have emerged from the germination tray once they are truly out of the soil and placed them in a tray that is not covered to keep them from constantly being rained on from the plastic dome.  Because I like to be able to move them easily I prefer cardboard cells or toilet paper rolls cut in half to plant in rather than the rows of plastic cells.

I’ve tried something new this year that has proven quite effective in helping me regulate moisture levels for my seedlings.  Pea gravel.  Pardon the blurry image – what I’m trying to show is the gravel in the middle of the seed tray here.  I scooped some pea gravel into the bottom of the tray and then placed the seed starting cups on top of the gravel.  This allows me to pour water UNDER the seed starting cups.  They drink it up from the bottom while sitting on the gravel;  they are not as likely to develop problems associated with over-watering or water overwhelming the seedlings.  The pea gravel also holds onto a bit of moisture and slowly delivers some moisture to the plants through contact.  If I am remiss in watering, the effect does not seem to be as devastating.  If I overwater (something I tend to do), the damage seems mitigated.  I will be using pea gravel again.  It is important to note that I DO have a plastic tray under all of this mess that I tested for holes.  A drippy seed starting tray is not fun, and can be crazy dangerous if you follow my next suggestion…

3) Light. In years past I simply set up some shelves in front of a sliding glass door that was as south-easterly as I could provide and had very sad looking little seedlings.  Pale, leggy to the point of collapse.  NO GOOD.  I did some research online and found that there were plenty of gadgets available to help me provide light to me little veggie children and all I had to do was plunk down a load of cash and I too could experience seed starting victory.  Well, I pretty much vow not to start from seed every year, so the investment that they were asking for was pretty much out of the question.  More research from the DIY pages revealed that florescent shoplites can deliver adequate seedling sun.  That sealed it.  I had a wire shelf unit already (scored from a big box store on super sale, so I think it was like $15).  I went to the hardware store.  An employee offered to help and I explained my dismay that I couldn’t seem to get enough light in a VERY SUNNY glass door.  He expressed a theory that newer windows and glass doors may block out some of the magic that seedlings require because of their coatings and insulation.  He said something along the lines of “I’m no scientist, but folks with old windows seem to have better luck no matter which direction they’re facing.”  He then helped me choose 4 foot shoplites and T-12 bulbs.  I rigged the lights, added a heating pad, threw on a full spectrum light I had from when I lived somewhere it rained ALL THE TIME and voila, instant sunny spot for seedlings.


Lights Off.


Let the sunshine on.

4) Transplanting.  Great, so you’ve got some healthy green little buggers in those cells and it is so exciting so you just wait until the right date, right?  No.  You will need to take them out of those little jobbies and put them in slightly larger containers to allow their roots room to grow.  Yes, you really need to do this.  I usually do it when the seedling has begun to develop it’s second set of leaves.  This is another time I am glad to use cardboard.  It is MUCH easier to get them out of the cardboard then plastic, in my experience.  So, gently move them into larger containers, and a week before the proper date for outside I start putting them outside for a few hours a day, slowly building up the amount of time to get them accustomed to the harsher conditions that may be out there waiting for them.


Leeks getting ready for the garden. Go, leeks, go – you expensive, delicious little freaks!

I’ll keep you posted as to how many of my little beauties actually make it into the soil.  Here’s hoping my experiments will pay off for you!

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