Everybody's talking about starting seeds these days, it seems! Paula asked me in a comment on a previous post about my setup, and then last night on the phone a friend told me she'd gone to a seed-starting workshop but felt overhwelmed because she could never be "that organized". It's not very hard, really! (Do I look organized? See picture below!) But there are a few things you need to know for best chance of success.
Above: My home-made seed-starting shelf just happens to fit into a corner of the furnace room in the basement. Sometimes it's hard to get to because so much junk gets shoved in here... but I've currently cleared a trail. Notice the bag of milk cartons "saved for a craft". Anyway, I only have one light on at the moment since there are only a few seeds that I start this early (see below.) The seedling trays are sitting on boxes and egg cartons to raise them up as close to the lights as possible. Very high tech.
When to start
This is one of the most important things to get right. If you start seeds inside too early, they will get leggy (stretched) as they try to grow too high reaching for more light. So first, check your seed package and it will say the number of weeks before planting outside to start the seeds. If they are annuals, you don't want to plant them outside until around the last frost date, which is about May 23. Frost-hardy perennials could be planted out several weeks earlier. Make yourself a seed-starting timetable to keep yourself on target. Keep in mind that lots of things can be direct-seeded into the ground in May - so don't make more work for yourself if you don't have to! I start all my lettuce, spinach, chard, peas, beans, carrots, beets and more by planting seeds directly outside.
See my post, When to start Vegetable Seeds in Calgary
How to start
There are plenty of resources on the web and I've posted links to several before (also see the bottom of this post.) You don't need fancy stuff - you can use almost anything as a container as long as it drains. Basically, a heat mat (or warm place to germinate such as over the fridge) is necessary for some seeds like tomatoes (if the seed packet says germination at 20oC or higher, you will want a heat mat. For other seeds, it's just a nice-to-have and will start your seeds a little faster.) If you are starting anything other than fast-growing annuals just a few weeks before planting out, then you will want lights as well. Keep the lights on a timer set for 16 hours on per day, and keep the lights as close as possible to the tops of the seedlings.
Above: I discussed leggy seedlings in more detail in April 2009 when I noticed that a certain someone's lavatera seedlings (name withheld for protection!) just weren't doing quite as well as mine because they were growing in a windowsill instead of under lights.
Taking care of seedlings
So your seedlings have light and you're watering and fertilizing them regularly. Duh. What else do you need to do? Thin them by transplanting and/or cutting out some seedlings that are growing too close together (I use nail scissors.) Blow on them or turn a fan on them for a little while each day. Seriously! This strengthens the stems. Things like tomatoes benefit from being replanted a little deeper in larger pots several times during the seedling stage. Transplant anything that is getting too large for whatever container it's in.
Above: In March 2008 I already had to transplant my tomatoes into larger pots.
Above: By mid-April 2008, they were too tall for my seed-starting shelf so I had to move them to a south-facing window. Obviously, they were not ready for planting outside at that time of year! Now I don't start tomatoes until late March. Gardening is all about learning from your experiences!
Hardening them off
This is the last step before planting seeds outside. Basically, you want to get your soft, indoor-grown seedlings ready for the conditions outside - wind, stronger light, etc. You have to do this slowly and it is essential! Put them outside in a shady, sheltered spot for a few minutes each day, gradually working up over several days from about 30 minutes to a full day. And of course, if you are planting them out in May sometime, there is always the risk of frost or snow after you have planted your tender babies outside. Be ready to whisk pots into the garage or cover plants with sheets to protect them. More on this in May!
Above: By late April 2008, I was putting seedlings outside on the shady porch on the warm days. Yes, I know, I need to get rid of that awful astroturf-outdoor-carpet. It's on the (very long) to-do list...
If you have other questions about starting seeds, post a comment here and I'll try to answer them.
From the archives:
- for the record - first seeds planted for 2011
- seeds I've ordered for 2011
- How to winter sow seeds in a milk jug. (a super easy way of starting seeds I haven't discussed above.)
- Blogs and Blooms Video: How to start seeds the message - it's easy!
- Blogs and Blooms Video: Transplanting your seedlings, including hardening them off - a critical step.
- How to winter sow seeds from Urban Sustainable Living
- sowing seeds indoors from Urban Sustainable Living
- 10 Seed-starting tips from Fine Gardening magazine
- Seed-starting strategies from Vegetable Gardener magazine
- Estimating viability - how long do seeds last? from A Way to Garden
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