There have been many articles written about starting seeds but I think that all of us can continue to learn. I have been a gardener for over 50 years and I continue to pick up tips and information on a variety of gardening subjects. I have been chairman of our Master Gardener greenhouse for a number of years and I have gleaned some information on starting seeds and growing plants that will be beneficial to gardeners both novice and experienced. Iíll take you through it all, from where to get your seeds to transplanting your seedlings into the garden in the spring.
In order to ensure a high percentage of germination you must use the correct germination mix. Most of these are a mixture of peat, pearlite and several other components. These mixtures are light and retain moisture well which will ensure successful germination. A good seed starting media should demonstrate good drainage, ample porosity or air spaces, a high moisture holding capacity, a moderate amount of mineral nutrients.
Containers There are many kits marketed for seed starting. You can recycle containers that you have around the house or purchase one of the many kits available. Many folks including myself recycle containers from year-to-year. One important task that should be followed if recycling containers is to sterilize them in a 10% bleach solution in order to remove any disease that might be present from prior uses.
My personal favorite method of starting is to use a 4-cell pack which is placed into a flat which is covered with a humidity dome. I plant the seeds into the cell pack and place it into the flat, add water to the flat and cover with the humidity dome. I then place the flat onto my heat box which I described in the previous article. Do not forget to label the seeds as you plant them.
Flat, Cell Pak, Humidity Dome
If you don't have a commercial humidity dome you can cover your containers with clear plastic wrap.
I monitor the flats, add water when needed and wait for germination. Once the seeds germinate I remove the humidity dome. I leave the flats on the heat box for about a week after germination.
Damping Off One important condition that you need to be on the watch for is called damping off, a fungal disease caused by parasites that enters the plant at the point where the stem emerges from the soil. Symptoms are drooping leaves, black stems, and plant death.
One method of preventing damping off is to spray your seedlings with Chamomile tea. Use 4 teabags and 2 cups boiling water, steep for one hour, let cool, and place into a spray bottle. Sprayer seedlings every 4 to 5 days, this has been found to be very effective in preventing damping off.
The first leaves that appear on the new seedlings are called seed leaves or cotyledons. After several weeks depending on the plant true leaves will appear, this is the signal that it's time to transplant into pots.
I like to transplant into 3- or 4-inch pots. have used a product called "Cow Pots" for the past several years with great success. The pots are made from processed cow manure, so at planting time the entire pot may be directly planted into the soil, the pot breaks down over time with the manure adding nutrients to the soil.
My favorite potting mix
Use a good quality potting mix in which to transplant your seedlings. After transplanting I like to use a water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer at half strength. I like to fertilize every 10 days to two weeks again using the fertilizer at half strength.
One of the most difficult things about starting plants indoors is to prevent them from getting "leggy". Plants tend growth toward their light source and if the light source--whether it be sun or artificial lights--is not bright enough or too far away the plants will tend to get leggy. I have built a light shelf using shop lights suspended by chains over the shelves. This allows me to raise or lower the lights depending on the growth of the plants. When starting new seedlings I lower the lights where they are only 2 to 3 inches above the seedlings; as the plants grow I raise the lights. There is no reason to buy expensive "grow light bulbs" use 1 40 watt cool white and 1 warm white bulb which will work just fine. If you don't choose to use artificial lighting place your seedlings in the sunniest window that you have usually south facing.
Use 1 cool whitel 1 warm white bulb
Continue to water and fertilize your plants as described above.
Wind, sun and rain can wreak havoc on delicate seedlings, you need to toughen them up and harden them off. The idea is to expose your plants to the elements gradually. Practically, this means that you exposure seedlings to outside conditions incrementally over the course of several days, depending on your patience, and the temperature. The process is more art than science, so the following is just a ballpark schedule that you should modify giving the temperature type of plant and your temperament.
Day One: Pick a mild day and put your seedlings outside in a protected area out of direct sun for a few hours. Less is more here; you just want to give them a taste of what is to come.
Day two through five: Increase sun exposure gradually, while keeping plants protected from cold and wind. At the same time, also gradually reduce the amount of water you give your seedlings (boot camp isn't supposed to be fun) and don't fertilize them until they are completely hardened off.
Over the next six to ten days: Lengthen the time your plants are outside, until they can stay out all day and night. You may still need to protect your plants even after they are hardened off in the event of high winds, sudden downpours, or freezing temperatures.
Hardening off can be a bit of a logistical nightmare. I find the easiest way to do all of this plant schlepping, is to put my seedlings on wagons and garden carts. Then I can simply wheel them in and out of the garage.
Difficult-to-start seeds Some seeds need a few extra steps in order to germinate successfully. It is very important to read the information on your seed packet very carefully for specific instructions on that particular seed. If you are starting seeds that you have saved or have obtained in some other manner take the time to research before attempting to start your seeds.
Soak: Some seeds take a long time to absorb the water they need to germinate. This Process is speeded up by soaking them in water overnight. Don't soak seeds for more than 24 hours, unless specifically recommended on the packet.
Nick, chip, or scarify: Seeds like sweet peas and morning glories have hard seed coats that block the uptake of water into the embryo. To speed germination, you need make a tiny hole in the seed coat. You can either nick the surface of the seed with fingernail clippers (much safer than a knife), or rub the seed against a piece of sandpaper. Be careful not to damage the embryo by removing too much of the seed coat. It's best to nick or scarify the seed on a side away from the growing point. For example, the growing point on a morning glory seed is the pointed tip, so scarify it on the rounded side.
A percentage of the seeds will sprout without nicking. If you don't want to nick all of them, just soak them overnight, plant the ones that swell up, then nick the remaining seeds and soak them again.
Refrigerate, pre-chill, or stratify: Some seeds like columbine and penstemon germinate best after a period of cold and wet that simulates the winter season. This is called cold-moist stratification. The easiest way to stratify seeds is to sow them into their pots, water them, cover the pots with plastic, and place them in the fridge for the recommended amount of time.
If fridge space is limited, try this method: Place the seeds in a paper napkin, then fold it and moisten with tap water. It shouldn't be sopping wet, just damp. Place the napkin in a ziploc bag, and put it in the fridge. After the recommended amount of time, remove the seeds from the fridge and pot them up. This method won't work for very tiny seeds, which are difficult to handle individually. You can try stratifying these seeds in a bag with moist peat moss, which can then be scattered over the surface of the soil. The only drawback to this method is that you can't tell how thickly you're sowing the seeds.
After stratification, place the seed pots in a sunny window or under lights for germination.
Once you have successfully started your seeds and transplanted them into the garden it will be time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labors. I find that starting a very tiny seed that can develop into a beautiful flower or tomato plant producing many pounds of delicious fruits is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a gardener.
About Paul Rodman
Paul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program.
Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic Gardening.com web site.
He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years.
He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan.
His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.