Before I really dig into this post, I want to say that everything that follows is only one of many different opinions. There are as many ways to start seeds as there are ways to make bread. This is what I have found works for me. Sometimes I learn new things, and change my routine to match what I have learned. If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them! Gardening, as anything in life, is very much trial and error. If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying!
When I get ready to plant, I make sure to have my work area prepped and all of my materials lined up and ready. First, I wash all of my pots and trays in a warm, mild dish soap and vinegar solution. I rinse them, and let them dry on some towels or by the wood stove. Second, I spread at least two layers of news paper over my counter top. Obviously, if you are doing this in a potting shed or outside in a greenhouse, you won’t be as fussy about cleanliness. Me? I have no fancy shed or greenhouse, so I’m making due with some shelves inside.
Now that I have clean pots and a covered surface to work on, I line all of my pots up in the tray and fill them with dirt. Not just any dirt, mind you, but a sterile seed starting mix. I’ve used peat and perlite before, but our yard bags of peat are buried under three feet of snow over by the outhouse somewhere. There’s no getting to them until the spring thaw. This year, I’m using a store-bought mix. It’s about $2 a bag, and one bag gives me two trays worth. I lightly fill the cells and sweep excess of into the next ones until all of them are filled. I don’t tamp them down at this point. I leave them loose.
Next, I add some moisture to the mix. With a big cup, I pour about a quart of water gently over all of the cells. They get a bit bumpy and wild looking, but I don’t care. I give it about an hour to soak throughout the cells, getting all of the medium damp.
After an hour has passed, I come back and even out the dirt in each cell using my index and middle fingers. Some people use the base of a screwdriver for this. I don’t mind getting dirty. I lightly press the damp dirt down. I don’t shove it into a compact clump, but I’m usually able to get it at least 1/2″ further down than it was before. Air pockets aren’t good for plants, so this step is to reduce the chances of it.
The next step is to make labels and get them into the cells. I do this first so I know where each of the varieties are going and how many seeds I will need of each. I plant one variety per six-cell pot, even if I only want one or two plants of that particular variety. I can always unload extras on family, friends, or neighbors. Some varieties, like my Amish Paste, I plant a lot of – so those varieties get multiple pots.
This is where I’m changing things up a bit. Usually, I get a pretty low germination rate of 25-50%. We’ve been moving a lot in the past decade, so I’ve never had ideal conditions for seed starting. Sometimes, it has been pots sitting on the kitchen counter with no nearby lighting. Once it was on an unheated porch that got a lot of sun, but was cold. This year, I built my own custom shelves, collected up all of the old shop lights we’ve been accumulating over the years, and purchased four heating mats. Let me tell you, my germination rate is through the roof now! I have almost 100% germination. After seeing all four or five pepper seeds sprout in each tiny cell, I decided putting that many seeds in each cell is a bit ridiculous. I decided with the tomatoes to stick to two. So, as you can see in the picture below, there are only two seeds in each cell.
Most seeds need to be planted below the soil, but there are a few exceptions, like celery. Celery does better if it is left on top of the soil. The tomatoes I planted do better about 1/4-1/2″ below the soil surface, which is exactly how far down I tamped it with my fingers. With the seeds and labels all in place, I gently spread more dirt over top of the seeds, pressing down very lightly. The soil on top, though dry now, will wick moisture away from the damp soil below. If I feel like the mixture is still too dry, sometimes I’ll add some more water to the tray by lifting one pot out and pouring directly into the tray. I try to never water plants on the surface – always from the bottom up. Pouring water into the surface of the cells not only creates little craters where the water hits, but it also encourages mold growth and can lead to damping off. Damping off is what happens when a seedling is covered in a greyish mold or rots down to a stubby piece of stem and doesn’t grow back. It’s not pleasant to spend so much time growing seedlings only to lose them, so I do whatever I can to prevent this. As the plants grow, I use a sharp pencil or a toothpick to stir the surface of the soil to discourage mold growth, too.
Once I have the seeds covered, I pop a plastic tray on top to keep the medium moist and I set the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle up on my shelf. You’ll note in the picture below the two covered trays that are my tomato starts are sitting on top of flat, black things. Those are my heating mats. They are specially made for starting seeds. They bring the temperature up about 10 degrees from the ambient room temperature. This, more than anything, is why I think I am getting such a good rate of germination. It keeps the temperature constant, and with our wood-heated house, a constant temperature is difficult to achieve.
I have now moved my peppers, eggplants, asparagus, onions, and artichokes down to the non-heated shelf since they are mostly up and growing. Once they have sprouted, there’s no reason to keep them heated. The plastic covers on the tomato trays will be removed as soon as over half of the tomato plants have popped up. When plants are germinating, it’s not necessary to have a light on them during the day, but I had one tray of onions that wouldn’t fit on the shelf below so I had to leave the lights on up there. The lights come on at 6am and go off at 8pm.
Interesting story – the onions were not on the heat mats at any point, and they are coming up fabulously. I was told onions were very easy to start from seed, and apparently it’s true. They are hardy little plants. Yes, there are a lot of onion in each cell, but their roots don’t grow too much this early on so they’ll be easy to separate out. I watched plenty of youtube videos for starting onions from seed and noticed more vigorous growth in the densely planted onions than on the videos where only a couple seeds were in each cell. I’ll be keeping them trimmed to 2-3″ once they start getting unruly.
So that’s it. That is how I start my seeds. I guess I should mention that I don’t find it necessary to water the seedlings every day. About every two to three days I bottom water with about a quart of warm water. Remember what I said about bottom watering? I pick one pot out and pour the water into the empty area. The water spreads throughout the bottom of the tray, I replace the missing pot, and the soil wicks the water up to the plants through the little holes in the bottom of the pots.
Pretty soon most of the plants will have a few true leaves, and I will start lightly fertilizing. I have water-soluble plant fertilizer that I’ll use at 1/10th strength to start out. They’re just baby plants, after all. They couldn’t possibly use up all the nutrients in full strength fertilizer, and I don’t feel like feeding mold or algae. As the plants grow bigger, I’ll increase the potency accordingly.
Hope you enjoyed my little walk-through. I look forward to showing you the plants this summer when they are in full production mode!