A Back Yard Farm

Seed Starting Basics

by Reid.

Starting your own seeds has many advantages.  Lets look at how to do it, and why one should consider setting up some lights in late winter. 

Starting your own seeds saves money.  A packet of tomato seeds costs between $1.50 and $3.00.  You get around 30 seeds in a packet.  A plant at a nursery costs about $3.00.  But wait, I don't want 30- tomato plants in my garden!  Fear not.  Seeds can be used a few seasons, depending on the vegetable.  We will look on seed viability later.  The first reason to start your own seeds is to save money. 

Starting your own seeds expands your choices of different cultivars (varieties) you can have in your garden.  A garden center may have about ten or so different varieties of vegetables to choose from.  There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes to choose from.  Tomatoes come in every color of the rainbow. 

Starting your own seeds gives you a jump on the gardening season.  Some veggies like lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, and onions are ready to brave the elements before most garden centers have them available.  When you do it yourself, you can get a harvest about a month before your neighbors.  The above mentioned vegetables are cold tolerant, and can survive with a little protection.

Starting your seeds gives you an intimate relationship with your plants.  It never ceases to amaze me when I see seeds sprouting that I planted.  It gives me hope for yet another growing season.  There may still be a foot of snow on the ground, but I have a little patch of summer in my basement.  When you lightly brush the tops of your tomato seedlings to make them stronger, you get the scent of the tomato on your hands.  Close your eyes, inhale, and you are in the middle of July for a moment.  When you harvest that first crop, you remember the day you had the tiny living embryo in your fingers.

Those are just a few of the reasons to start your own seeds.  Lets move onto the how.

First you need a sterile soilless mix to plant your seeds in.  This is important.  Don't use garden soil or potting soil.  It needs to be sterile because any bacteria in the soil can cause disease to your seedlings.  Young seedlings are very prone to disease.  Most seed starting mixes are made up of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. You can find germinating mix at most garden centers (avoid the big box stores).

You have your mix, now you need containers.  You can buy trays at a home and garden store as well, or you can save some money and use washed yogurt containers, cut milk jugs, or any small container.  Just be sure to poke holes in the bottom.  Plants don't like a soggy environment.  Too wet a soil does not allow for roots to breathe. 

Now you are ready to plant.  Before you fill your containers, you must first wet the mix with warm water.  Make it evenly moist, but not soggy.  This is crucial because if you put seeds into dry soil, and then water, the soil will bead up and disperse the seeds you planted, and they won't be at the correct depth.  Plant the seeds at the correct depth that it says on the seed packet.  I like to use a sharpened pencil to accomplish this.  Cover the seeds and lightly press the soil down.

OK, now where is that sunny window I can put them?  Don't!  I know you have always heard that this is what your plants want.  However, sun through a window provides only a fraction of the light plants need to grow strong and stocky.  Many I'm sure have tried this, only to have 3'' of stem before the leaves start.  Eventually the plant cannot hold itself up and it tips over.  This is what we call "getting leggy".  All you need are basic shop lights.  An easy setup can be found many places online to make your own, or you can buy your own system.  It is important that the lights be kept at a maximum of 3'' above the plants at all times for 12-16 hours a day.  To encourage your seedlings to sprout faster, cover the newly planted seeds with plastic to create a mini greenhouse and keep in moisture.  Check this daily.  As soon as you see seedlings poking through, remove the plastic.  Failure to do this will almost certainly cause a disease called, "damping off."  This will look like fuzzy white at the base of the seedlings. 

Another way to increase germination time is by suing a heat mat.  Peppers and tomatoes greatly benefit from this.

The new life bursting forth also benefits from light petting to encourage stout seedlings.  Once a day brush the seedlings with your hand.  A light fan is also an option for this.

When a seed first emerges from the soil, or potting mixture, it has a set of two leaves called cotyledons. The cotyledons are actually a part of the seed, and act as a food source for the sprouting seedling. At this time the seedling does not conduct photosynthesis. It gets all its food and nutrition from the cotyledons.As the seedling becomes stronger and healthier, it will begin to form two more leaves that look very different from the cotyledons. The true leaves will look more like what the plant’s leaves look like when mature. Once the true leaves are present, the plant is now actively photosynthesizing. Eventually the cotyledons will wither and fall off as the true leaves take over the job of feeding the plant.

Once your seedlings have a set of true leaves give them half strength organic fertilizer once a week.  

Once your seedlings are about 3'' tall, transplant them into 4'' pots so the roots don't get crowded.  After this, you will plant them into the garden when it is time. 

About a week before the seedling is ready to go outside, gradually get it used to its new home by doing a process called "hardening off".  Start by putting it in a protected shady location for an hour a day.  Gradually increase its exposure to sun and wind all week.  Doing this will eliminate transplant shock.

There are some vegetables that are best started directly in the garden.  These are: beans, beets, carrots, corn, radishes, peas, and summer squash.  Other than those, seed packets will tell you when to start those seeds.  For a detailed planting calendar, visit www.allthingsplants.com.  Go to the menu and select goodies.  Click on planting calendar.  You then enter your zip code, and it gives you a detailed plan for when to start everything.  It even gives dates to start seeds for the fall season.  This is just a general rule, as seasons can be different.  Another website to check out is www.awaytogarden.com 

Enjoy the journey of starting your seeds.  It is a learning experience.  I have killed many seedlings, but did not give up.  It is all an experiment.  Keep at it, and you will be amazed of how much you can grow.  Be careful.  It is a slippery slope.  One final word of advice:  Start small.  Take great care of a few types of plants until you master the art of starting your own.