Seed Starting

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Seed Starting-Growing Your Own Seedlings

Over the years we have had failures and successes when starting seeds for our gardens.  These trials and errors have sometimes changed our seed starting methods.  We have found better ways each year and will probably continue to do so.  Now you can learn from our past mistakes, lucky you!

For example, one year we started our melons and cucumbers too early.  They were too large when they went outside.  Cucurbits don't like to be started too soon before the last frost date.  They had a hissy fit and didn't really start growing again for weeks.  All the time we thought we were gaining was lost and then some.

So the moral of my story is; read your seed packets and follow suggested starting times for indoor planting schedules.  We have found that we can start tomato and pepper plants earlier than suggested.  You have to make sure the roots don't get too crowded and be ready to move them into larger pots when necessary.  Also, don't start cucurbits any earlier than 4 weeks before last frost date.  I'm going for three, they grow really fast.

Why would you want to start your own seedlings?

There are several reasons to start your own seeds.  One of the most important reasons is that the selection available is so much larger than what you can buy in the nursery or at the plant stand.  We are much happier with the tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc., than we can buy as seedlings.  The selection of flowers is also amazingly vast.

Another reason is if you want to start early, for instance tomatoes with a season extender like Wall-O-Waters, you need to have the tomato plants earlier than the stores will have them available.  We have put our tomatoes out 6 weeks early with WOW's, (with great success!) and would not have found any in the store at that time in the spring.

Some people might say you can save money starting your own seeds but I question this.  There is the cost of the lights, electricity, soil mixes, and your time that you need to take into account.  You might save money growing flowers yourself because of the quantity you need to put into the average flowerbed.  Vegetables are questionable.  But the selection we can grow from buying seeds instead of plants pushes us to grow seedlings.  

I am not going to lie to you that growing seedlings are easy.  They take a lot of attention and you have to have supplemental light and check for water each day.

We wouldn't think of not starting our own seeds or not having a garden.  It is definitely an enjoyable part of our lives.  Perhaps it will be an enjoyable part of yours also.

Seed Starting

One of the most asked questions is, "How do I start seeds?"  This page will help you be successful in your seed starting.

It would be nice if all seeds reacted to starting methods the same but unfortunately this isn't the case.  Fortunately a good majority of seeds respond well to a small scale method using a paper towel, zip lock bag and water.  This method is easy for the novice because the chance of them drying out is zero and you will only be planting presprouted seeds.  This method will prevent seeds from drying out, cut down on empty cells filled with soil and no seedling.


Read your seed packet to know what your seed needs to germinate.  Heat? Cool temperatures?  Direct seeding?  I recently had trouble with Malva Sylvestris.  I didn't read that I had to soak them in very hot water and let sit for 24 hours.  Luckily a dear friend was over and noticed what the packet said.  Viola!  They were sprouting in two days!

Label your zip lock bag.  I like to use white sticky labels because they look neater and I can also cross off the name and reuse them.  You could write directly on the bag in a corner if you prefer.

Cut a paper towel into quarters, a strong paper towel is best as less quality towels tear and fall apart.

Fold each quarter in half.

Slip one quarter of the towel into a small zip lock bag.

Put your seeds between the fold.  (If you put them in first they will roll to the bottom of the bag, which is not where you want them.

Pour a small amount of water (not softened) onto the towel.  You want it to be moist but not swimming.

If they need cool temps put the bag somewhere appropriate.  If they need warmth it is a little trickier.  If you have a 'bottom heat' mat or coil set your bags on a cookie sheet on top of the heat with a towel over top.  If you have a thermometer use it to keep track of the temps.   At the very least put this on top of your refrigerator.

Check your seeds for sprouting by holding up to the light.  You will be able to see the little sprouts without even opening the bag!  Depending on the type of seed this could take a few days or a couple weeks.

Some seeds don't like the paper towel method or even seed starting indoors and need to go directly into the soil outside.  Packets will tell you if you need to start a certain seed directly into the garden.  Then there are times when the packets don't say much.  The tiniest seeds will not work with the paper towels because of difficulty of handling them.

There are seeds that are so easy to start indoors that you wouldn't need to use the "paper towel method."  These seeds would usually be those that are "easy to grow flowers or vegetables".  Just put seed directly into soil, cover with plastic wrap or a dome, cover and keep moist.

This year we have discovered some seeds that only started by sowing into seed starter mix.  This list is not a complete list, only the seeds we have had experience with.  They are: Aquilegia, Hollyhock, Impatiens, and Bachelor Buttons.

Before sowing morning glory and sweet pea seeds, soak them overnight in paper towels, keep warm; and then nick the seeds with a nail file to break the seed coat, and then plant in your soil.  The seeds will germinate much faster.  (See 'Difficult Seeds to Germinate')

Fortunately most vegetable seeds are easy to start yourself.  There are some perennials and a few annuals that are more difficult to start.  

Seeds that need warmth to sprout:  Peppers, tomatillo, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers

Seeds that don't do well with warmth, keep cooler: lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, other brassica types

Get your potting supplies ready for your sprouted seeds:

Containers:  I use plastic seed starter cells, the kind your get seedlings in when you buy plants from the nursery.  You can use egg cartons with the tops cut off, ice cubes trays, disposable trays with dome lids, etc.  If you use something that doesn't have drainage holes, you must put some in.  Soggy plants will not be healthy plants and will die. 

Other Supplies:

Seed Starter Mix


Assorted little tools like a tiny spatula, a long nail, old butter knife etc.  You will think of some of your own 'tools' as you need things.  A nut pick also makes a good tool.

Masking tape and pen or marker to label cell packs.

A bucket for your mix.  (Put the starter mix in the bucket at least a day before you need it and moisten with water.  Stir.  It is easier to work with when it has sat moist for a while.  Don't use your soil dry.  Water will roll right off dry soil.)

For pre-sprouted seeds: prepare individual cells with seed starter mix.  Firm and water the soil.  Place your sprouted seed on top and sprinkle with a little more mix.  Water a little more.  (Some seed packets will state the seeds need light to germinate; sometimes it states not to cover seeds.)

You will need a source of light.  Even a sunny window will not give you enough light for seedlings.  They will get leggy and not develop strong stems.

Inexpensive florescent shop lights will do just fine.  After a couple of years, replace the bulbs because the amount of light diminishes and the plants will suffer.  Your eyes can't detect the difference but those smart plants can.  You need to place the lights as close to the plants as possible, no more than 2" away, raising the lights as the plants grow.

Your plants will do great on 16 hours a day of artificial light.  Setting up a timer will be the best solution.  One year we didn't put a timer on the lights and left them on all the time.  The plants suffered that year and many died.

Check your plants every day.  They can dry out easily.  Some plants, like peppers, will grow better with bottom heat.  Others need it cool, so read your seed packet.

As the plants get bigger they will need fertilizer.  We use liquid fertilizer, like fish emulsion or kelp, in the water.  Just be careful, they are only babies and can easily be hurt with too much fertilizer, use half strength.

It is also good to put a fan on your plants as they get larger.  This will make their stems sturdier and get them ready for outdoors.  Milled Sphagnum Moss on top of the soil will fight off 'damping off'.  This is a disease that can attack indoor grown seedlings.  (The fan will help fight this also.)

This is going to sound weird but I guarantee we are not strange.  Touching and stroking your plants will also strengthen them.  Give this a try and you will have happy plants.

There are some seeds so small that presprouting is not feasible.  You can sprinkle the seeds over a container of soil and as they grow into tiny little plants move them to their own individual cells.  If you sow seeds into soil to germinate, cover the container with plastic wrap or put the whole thing into a plastic bag.  Just make sure you move them before their roots are too long.  Roots too long make the move harder on them.  Or you can just thin them out.  This can be very heart breaking though.  All your hard work and now you are going to 'kill' some of your babies.  When you need to thin your seedlings be careful if you are pulling them up, this could disturb the plants you want to keep.  Another method would be cutting the extras off with very small scissors.

Check on your seedlings everyday.  They can dry out very fast.  Only one person in our house can be trusted with this job and it isn't me.

Difficult seeds to germinate -

Some seeds don't germinate easily with the methods all ready described.  As stated before I wasn't having any success with Malva Salyvestris until they were soaked in very hot water and remained in the water for 24 hours.  This is one way to get some difficult seeds moving along.

Scarification is another way to speed up germination.  Nick or chip larger seeds (like wisteria) with a sharp knife, removing a small sliver from the end of the seed or rub the ends with sandpaper.  To scarify small seeds, place them in a jar lined with coarse sandpaper, cover and shake well.

Stratification is a method that is not a quick process.  Certain seeds such as gas plant, roses, many shrubs and trees will only germinate after exposure to several months of continuous cold, usually between 32 to 45 degrees F.  You can simulate winter by covering the seeds with damp peat moss and refrigerate them in a plastic bag for the specified time.

Then there are the seeds that will only germinate after being exposed to alternating periods of warm and cold.  If this is required the seed packet will say so.

Final Tips:

Save any cell packs and trays that you get from the nursery for the plants you want to grow from seed.

Cookie sheets are great for holding your seed starter cells.  Look around at garage sales or resale shops for old ones; it doesn't matter if they are rusty.  

Containers from sour cream, yogurt, etc. make good seedling pots.  This size is good for a 'step up' container, for when you need a larger pot than the one the seed started in.

All containers need holes in the bottom for drainage.

If you have containers that food came in with plastic dome lids, save these for starting seeds in mass.  They will need to be moved to individual cells when they get larger or their roots will intertwine.

I picked up some large heavy foil roasting pans at the dollar store and these have been very valuable e.g. working over them to catch the falling dirt, holding cell packs, moving plants outside for a "walk" etc.

Hold onto the first set of leaves when moving seedlings, the stem is very fragile and can be easily damaged.  These leaves are called cotyledons.  They will be the first little rounded leaves and are not the true leaves.

Sometimes the seed cap gets stuck unto the cotyledon leaves and if left on will cause the seedling to fail.  This happens when the seed wasn't planted deep enough.  Moisten the cap several times with a drop of water.   Carefully hold unto stem and try to remove with tweezers or knife blade.  If the seed is large enough you may be able to hold on the the seed cap and lift an edge with a knife blade to help it off.  If you damage the plant don't feel too bad because it probably wouldn't have made it with out your attempt anyway.  

Seedlings need to be gradually conditioned to the outdoors; this is called "hardening off."  When the weather gets nice take them outside, giving them some protection from the wind and sun at first and then increasing their exposure as the days go on.  If your seedlings have had a fan on them they will be more conditioned to the wind.  On really nice days we like to leave the plants outside all day.  This is only after they have gradually been exposed to the outside.  Being outside causes your plants to need more water, keep an eye on them.  Take your plants into the house at night unless you know it is going to stay above 50 degrees all night long.


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