|- Geranium seedlings with some geranium and begonia cuttings catching the sun on the three-season porch|
Why start your own seeds, indoors or outdoors?
- You want more plants than you can afford (or wish to spend at the local gardening store.) This is especially true for things where you want more than one or two, such as a whole bunch of a specific type of flower for pots or beds, or lots of veggies for preserving or selling.
- You want specific varieties or species that are difficult to come by locally.
- You want to grow for selling at a farmer’s market, or for contributing to a local food pantry.
- You want to grow "heirlooms" (or non-hybrids) and save their seeds, thereby saving even more money in the long run, and preserving biodiversity.
- You want to garden organically, and know what you have from start to finish.
- Some things grow better from seed. For instance, onions grow bigger if planted early from seed. Since they are biennial they will not try to bloom the first year (sets are second-year) and make larger bulbs.
- You're a gardening fool who loves to try new things, and watch things sprout before the snow is gone outside...
Not all seeds can or should be started early indoors; they do just as well or better direct-seeded where they will eventually live. Vining plants might be sprouted a week or so before planting out, but more than that and they just are difficult to deal with. But there are many things that will flower and fruit earlier (annuals and veggies) or the first year (perennials) if started indoors at the proper time.
What to you need to start your own seeds indoors?
- Sufficient light: A bright window (south is best,) and/or artificial lights, usually florescent (whether shop lights or a fancy-shmancy plant fixture, they all work.) Florescent lights actually work better if they are augmented by sunlight, even an hour or two. There are more expensive lights if you're really addicted, but that’s for advanced growers.
- Sufficient airflow: Plants that will go outside need fresh air - an open window for mild days, a fan when the weather is not helping out. This will make them tougher, and help reduce damping off and other moldy-fungusy problems.
- The correct amount of moisture: During germination even moisture is provided by covering with plastic wrap, or clear covers for flats, etc. After germination seedlings need to be kept at the correct moisture balance to prevent the aforementioned moldy-fungusy issues while still keeping them alive. A nice watering can and clean spray bottle help - it's more difficult to water at the sink, and small seeds and seedlings need gentle watering.
- Protection - from cats (my cats love to eat pepper plant and allium family leaves, and certain flowers. Then they puke it up, of course. Don't even think about catnip.) If you have dogs or children or other pets, you need to keep them at bay; don’t put tempting things close to the floor. Remember some plants are toxic. Take care.
- A hardening-off location outside where they can acclimate.
- Method of labeling things: I use tape and a marker, but feel free to be fancier - there are lots of homemade and commercial options. But you will want to know what is what, if you are planting more than one type of something, or are new at this - seedlings often don't look much like the adult plant.
- The essential ingredients: containers (flats and/or pots,) soil and seeds.
There are many different ways to start seeds, and my methods vary depending on seed type, age of the seed, the size of the sprouts, how many I'm trying to start, and maybe what day of the week it is. First, read the seed package directions. Some vendors do a better job than others spelling out the conditions for good germination, or their seed catalogs contain information. Especially for perennials, which may require stratification (chilling) there are often online sources for information.
You can start seeds in the pots where they are going to stay, larger pots that will be moved outside when the time comes. In some cases I start seeds using the little compressed disks of peat or coir, especially larger seeds that are newer with reliable germination rates, such as peppers and tomatoes. After sprouting they can be transplanted disk and all into a larger pot, or into the garden. There are also peat pots and Cow Pots® and paper pots.... Most of the time, for small seeds and ones that are older (they may not be as viable as they once were,) I use flats. The seedlings get transplanted to small pots or into multi-packs. It's a bit more fussy, but there are no gaps because of ungerminated seeds. And I love to get my hands dirty.
|- Coir Disks with Tomatoes and Peppers already popping up|
|- Mixed size flats and pots with miscellaneous sprouts|
Get ready, Get set….
- Prepare the containers - clean clean clean - and make sure your hands are washed. If pots are plastic and are not brand new, wash all containers (flats or pots) in hot soapy water and rinse well. You are trying to keep fungusy-moldy goodness out of the way. (I reuse all of mine until they fall apart, because I am cheap and often these containers are not recyclable.) Obviously this does not apply if you are using Cow Pots®, peat pots, paper pots etc.
- If you are direct seeding into a larger container, make sure it has drainage holes, and if needed, a layer of something to keep the soil inside. (I use pieces of paper towels if it is a short-term container.)
- Prepare the planting medium. Soil-less planting mix is preferred in pots and flats; no bugs, weed seeds, few moldy-fungusy problems. It's lightweight and holds water well. I always boil some water and pre-moisten the mix (or disks) to both accomplish the initial watering (the mix is often very dry and the disks need expanding) and to help sterilize.
Get down and dirty
Mark the containers as you go - unless you know a petunia from a lobelia or are only planting one type. I usually have several colors or varieties of the same thing, or am trying something new.
You can direct-seed into larger pots, or directly into multi-packs like the garden stores use. The larger pots may be the final home, simply moved out onto the patio. The multi-packs work well, but if you have less than 100% germination you will have gaps. You can plant some with 2 and move the extra seedlings to the empty spots. I usually use larger flats, and plant in rows – as many as you need for each type of plant.
When planting, follow the directions given for the seeds. If light is required or seed is tiny then firm the surface of the soil lightly. Sprinkle seeds on the surface of the soil, and use the spray bottle to moisten them and settle them into the top of the soil.
Larger seeds may have instructions to plant to a depth from "barely cover" to 1/4 or 1/2 inch. The "barely cover" seeds are usually still pretty small, and the spray bottle is useful. Larger seeds and ones buried deeper can be watered in using the watering can.
Make sure you water so that all the soil is lightly moistened. You don't want puddles of mud. Seedlings can drown, and the excess moisture is a haven for fungus and mold.
|- Flat with commercially available “greenhouse dome”|
When planting in flats, I suggest alternate rows of different colors/varieties/species if you care which is which. For instance, plant a row of Petunia Red then Lobelia Blue then Petunia White and then Lobelia Pink. No matter how neatly you planted them, watering may displace them.
Waiting for the action
So now they're planted, what do you do? Wait and watch, and make sure they stay just moist enough. Nothing is like seeing the first bits of green appearing, especially in the dead of winter.
Hopefully you will know how long germination takes for the seeds you planted, but this can be altered by temperature, moisture, the specific variety, age of seed etc etc. Some species sprout in a day, some take weeks. Most garden annuals and veggies are less than 2 weeks, many in a week.
Keep an eye on them. If you are using heat mats to warm the soil a bit, make sure they are not overheating and drying out. I've not used them; I find my current location is warm enough, but if your area is on a porch or in a basement they might help speed germination. If you have them in a cool area for stratification or cold-loving sprouters, make sure temperature is maintained.
Moisture Is The Primary Concern - a little condensation on the covers is good, but watch for surface fungus/mold. If you see any gray fuzz, open the cover for a little bit, and maybe remove the fuzz before it spreads. If the soil appears dry, water just enough to moisten.
Once green is seen, make sure the lights are on! I run my lights on a timer. Probably too many hours a day (about 12) but you should have at least 10 hours. After germination the covers can be removed unless we are talking tiny tiny sprouts (from tiny tiny seeds.) In that case keep the cover on at least part time, unless you are willing to spritz the seedlings a couple of times a day with your spray bottle. Whatever the size, you want to let the soil surface get a little dry between waterings; otherwise damping off can occur.
Keep the lights, if using florescent, close to the tops of the tallest plants and move them up as they grow. Full-sun plants especially get leggy with too little light or too-warm conditions. This is also a good time to start a gentle fan blowing, either a ceiling fan or an oscillating fan, for a few hours a day. The moving air also dries them out faster - which is good to keep them from getting damping-off fungus but requires more attentive watering.
They're getting too big for their britches….
|- Asclepias “Gay Butterflies”, begonias, Echinacea paradoxa and purpurea (and one lonely geranium) transplanted to multi-packs and small pots|
|Ready to transplant! Assorted salvia, merrigolds, who knows what...|
Transplanting is a delicate task since the stem is often tender. Usually you transplant when the first or second set of true leaves appears. For seedlings with a simple stem, you can usually plant them up to their seed leaves. (Example, peppers, tomatoes, basil.) If the plant is the sort with basal leaves (most of the leaves grow right at the base) then set the plant to just at the depth of where the leaves join. (Example, parsley.)
|Using a plastic fork to dig up a pepper seedling|
There can be just a little root system or a quite impressive one. DON'T just pull on the plant - it will probably break. Dig under the seedling with a tool. I've used toothpicks for little guys, forks or sporks or mini-house-plant trowels for larger ones. If seedlings are close together with tangled roots, you can gently separate them. Or plant two of them together, if they really don’t want to part.
|Tomato Juliet after transplanting, right up to the seed leaves, and waiting to get watered in.|
A few days after transplanting, when the seedlings are starting to look like something, I start feeding them - usually a 1/2 strength solution of a balanced fertilizer. At least a few hours a day, make sure they are getting moving air from a fan or open window. If the weather allows, get them outside. The point is not to get them to bloom - it's to get them big and strong!
Almost ready - but not quite - Hardening off
|Rack for hardening off – mostly shade and out of the wind|
As early as practical I start bringing them to the 3 season porch, and then outside. As I write this in mid-March, we have had several 70+ degree days, so the seedlings are outside until it gets ugly again. (In fact even the flats that have not sprouted are out unless it rains.) I have a rack made of PVC pipe that used to be my seed starting stand, but now it lives out on the patio in the shade for holding and hardening off seedlings. (If anyone is interested I could show some pix of it so you can build one.)
|- Open-bottom flat to hold pots and multi-packs outside
Now you can take your young'uns and get them in their permanent home. Pots can go to their final positions. If going into the ground, prep the soil with compost and slow-release balanced fertilizer. Mulch will help hold moisture, but don't use bark or hardwood - those are better suited for trees and shrubs. Plant according to the nature of the species - basal-leaved plants should not have their crowns buried but tomatoes love to be sunk in extra deep. I'm not going into all of that here, that is another story altogether....