While purchasing plants at the local nursery or hardware store is convenient there is
probably no better and more satisfying way to truly experience the complete growing cycle
than starting your own seeds. To get a jump on the season most Savvygardeners will
start their seeds indoors so that they have small plants for transplanting after our last
Like so many gardening practices starting seeds
indoors is not terribly difficult but it does require patience and careful
attention. The following tips, while not exhaustive, will help you through most of
the seed starting issues you may encounter.
It Starts with Seeds
The first thing you will need is seeds. Seed catalogues offer a seemingly endless
variety of flower, vegetable, and herb seeds. We like to do our "window
shopping" in catalogues but reserve our actual purchases for local retailers -
especially those who are smart enough to carry only those varieties that will succeed in
the Kansas City area. The good news - seeds are cheap.
A Warm Place to Get Started
You are going to need an area where the whole process will take place. Keep in mind
that the ambient temperature should be between 65 and 70 degrees. You will probably
be using artificial light so access to power outlets may be a consideration as well.
And if you have small children or curious pets that innocently enjoy upsetting a
good project like this you may want to think about keeping your growing seeds out of
Getting Down to Work
Remember that different seeds have different germination and growth rates. As you
will probably want to transplant your seedlings outdoors after the last frost this means
starting seeds at different times. At Savvygardener.com we use the first full
weekend in May as our estimated "safe" date to plant outdoors. By this
date in Kansas City there is virtually no chance of further frost. Check the
directions on your seed packs. You should find instructions indicating the number of
weeks before "last frost" to start the particular seeds indoors. Work
backward from the first weekend in May.
Clean Containers & the Right Soil
It is very important that the containers you start the seeds in be very clean. If
you are re-using plastic seed flats from last year or if you are using saved food
containers (yogurt cups, salad bar boxes, etc...) it is wise to use a mild bleach solution
to disinfect them. All containers must have holes in the bottom to allow drainage -
seeds want to be moist not soaking wet. For this reason you may want to use a rimmed
tray to set your containers in.
Fill your containers with dry potting soil. Soil-less mixes
are best and can be purchased just about anywhere. If you want to make your own mix
simply combine four parts peat moss, four parts vermiculite, and one part perlite.
All of these items are available at your local hardware or garden store. Next, and
this is important, thoroughly soak the soil in the containers with warm water and gently
tamp down the wet soil. This creates the warm, moist environment that seeds need for
It's Time to Sow the Seeds
Place several seeds in each container. Bury the seeds at a depth that is roughly two
times the size of the seed itself. For the smallest seeds just cover them with a
light sprinkling of dry potting soil. Place the seeds in a spot with moderate light
- not in direct sunlight. Normal household light will be sufficient in most cases.
(Some seeds require darkness during germination. This will be indicated on
the seed pack. In these cases simply cover the container with a piece of cardboard.)
Your seeds will germinate best if you can maintain a soil
temperature of 80 to 85 degrees. This can be achieved by using heat tape or heating
mats available through catalogues and some hardware and gardening centers. Cover
your containers with plastic wrap or use the domes supplied with seed flats to keep the
soil from drying out too quickly. Check your containers once or twice a day and mist
them with warm water as necessary. You do not need to use fertilizers during
germination as all of the necessary nutrients are already in the seed itself.
From Seeds to Seedlings
When your seedlings emerge and the first leaves are opening it is time to remove the heat
and give them more light. They need about 16 hours of bright light each day.
That means a sunny window is less than ideal. Most Savvygardeners find that placing
the plants under 40 watt fluorescent bulbs works best. Bulbs should be placed
several inches above the seedlings and raised as the plants grow. Some people use a
timer for their lights but we find it just as easy to turn them on when we wake up in the
morning and turn them off when we go to bed.
Now that the seeds have become seedlings they will need some
feeding. We still recommend misting as a way to water the plants and at this point
we add a balanced plant fertilizer diluted to half strength to our spray bottle.
Survival of the Strongest
If you put several seeds in each container you may now notice that some of them are not as
strong as their container-mates. The weakest and spindliest seedlings need to be cut
so the strongest ones will be stronger. If more than one strong plant is in a single
container you may opt to carefully remove and transplant them to their own containers.
There is no sense in attempting heroics to rescue weak seedlings as their chance of
surviving the move to the garden is slim at best. That's precisely why you should
place more than one seed in each container to begin with.
As the seedlings get bigger they will need to be moved to bigger
pots in order to keep their growth momentum going. We usually use peat pots that can
be set directly in the ground after last frost.
Hardening Off and Heading Outdoors
Toward the end of April you need to prepare your plants for transplant by "hardening
them off". This is done by gradually introducing them to the outdoors. Start by
placing them outdoors for two or three hours, preferably near where they will be planted.
Increase their outdoor time a little each day until, by last frost, they are ready
to go it alone and can be transplanted to the garden.
Things to Watch Out For
Hopefully your seed starting will be trouble-free. There are a couple of problems
while not common may pop up to challenge your nurturing skills:
- Insects - If aphids, spider mites or whiteflies appear
simply spray them with insecticidal soap.
- Disease - Prevention is the best medicine and using sterile
soil and containers is very important. "Damping off disease", which
resembles cotton balls that have been stretched across the soil, is a fungus that attacks
the plant at the soil line. Damping off is best prevented by not allowing the soil
to remain too wet. Good air circulation, aided by a small fan, will help.