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March 16, 2010 in gardening6 comments

seed starting primer

basil seedlings: genovese, sweet, and lemon

Yesterday I told a charming and entirely not boring story about how I came around to starting many of my own seedlings for the garden.

Today I’m going to show you how to start your own seeds. Begin heirloom tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and more from seed, all from the comfort of your home or garage. This post will cover how to select a growing medium and containers to start your seeds in, how to plant the seeds, how to ensure your young seedlings get enough light, and how to care for your seedlings once they’ve sprouted.

1. containers

You can begin seeds in almost anything. People use egg cartons, yogurt containers, reused greenhouse containers.

72 seedling greenhouse starter kit

I’m partial to the greenhouse containers and those nifty “72 plant” greenhouse kits sold in any major store. The kits come with growing medium, usually in the form of dried peat pellets in each cell, a waterproof tray, and a passive continuous watering system. The watering system could just be the cells sitting in water in the tray or in the form of an absorbent pad that the cells sit on, while the pad dips over the sides into the water and wicks it up.

peat-pot seed starting kit

If you aren’t starting that many seeds (though you’ll be surprised how many you do start, once you start getting into it), the 8-cell peat pots are great as well. The bonus to starting in peat is that you don’t need to get the seedling out to plant — just plant it pot and all. The downside to peat pots, I’ve found, is that they sometimes begin to disintegrate long before you plan to put it in the ground, making moving the peat cells careful work.

A nifty kit my aunt gave me has a heater you place the containers on. It’s a flat, plastic pad that, when plugged in, holds a steady temperature around 70 degrees. It’s certainly not necessary, but if you’re sprouting seeds in a chilly or drafty area, it can be a great help. I can attest from personal experience that using this heating element, which kept the soil at a steady warm temperature, resulted in quick, reliable sprouting.

2. growing medium

Don’t use potting soil. It’s too spongy and doesn’t hold moisture well enough to nurture along young seedlings.

growing mix in a brick!

Do use specially-labeled growing mix. This comes in bags, pellets, or my favorite incarnation:

warning! this chocolate cake tastes like dirt!

Warning! This chocolate cake tastes like dirt!

The peat brick.

filling cells with growing medium

Moisten your growing medium as instructed on its packaging, and fill the cells of your containers with it, if necessary. Many seed-starting kits come with peat pellets in each cell already, making the process extra simple.

3. lighting

A sunny window is not the best place to grow seedlings. Sun can’t hurt, but it’s nowhere near enough light for young plants. If you do not provide supplemental light, your seedlings will become tall and “leggy,” as they push themselves to grow tall quickly to reach for more light. They’ll also be sad. Don’t let your plants be sad.

seed starting setup

Mama needs a new set of curtains!

Set up one or two sets of standard fluorescent tube lights, and hang them directly over your seed trays. Don’t bother turning them on until seeds germinate; they don’t care about light when they’re underground. Once sprouted, however, adjust the lights to be only a few inches away from the seedlings, and keep the lights on 18 hours a day. You can use a timer to automate the lights. I use the “Okay, I woke up, turn the lights on” and “Okay, I’m going to bed, turn the lights off” method, but that’s because the seeds are in my bedroom.

Regular fluorescent bulbs are just fine. No need for special “daylight spectrum” bulbs.

4. planting your seeds

Now it’s time to get those seeds into the dirt!

that's not a mouse turd, that's a basil seed on the tip of a pencil

Use the tip of a pencil to tame tiny seeds. Press the pencil tip into the moistened growing medium, and then press gently against a seed. The seed will adhere to the pencil tip, and you can press it into the soil. It’s much easier to plant this way than trying to use our giant fingers!

Don’t plant seeds too deeply. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the seed, the shallower it wants to be in the ground. Tiny seeds like basil and tarragon should be virtually atop the soil, with perhaps the lightest dressing over them. You don’t want to make the sprouting seedling have to work to hard to get to the light.

Put at least 2 seeds in each cell, and thin once they have sprouted.

Once you’ve planted your seeds, cover the tray(s) with the lid provided, if using a kit, or cover with plastic wrap. A moist, warm environment is catnip for seeds. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove all coverings: now they need to breathe.

5. caring for your seedlings

Now it’s the waiting game. :)

Keep the fluorescent lights 2-4 inches from the growing seedlings. They need LOTS of light. Don’t pull the light too far away.

Keep the growing medium moist. I prefer passive watering systems that allow the soil to wick water from below, as described above, but if you must water from overhead, use a mister or fine sprayer. Don’t dump water on the seedlings. You wouldn’t enjoy having buckets of water dumped on you!

parsley and tarragon seedlings

Thin as necessary, particularly if newly sprouted seedlings were too tiny to be able to pull out one by one.

• It’s so easy to over-fertilize that I don’t recommend fertilizing young seedlings at all.

Touch your seedlings and talk to them. Okay, talking is optional, but aren’t they just so cute that they beg to be talked to? Touching them, and/or setting a fan nearby at low speed to blow across them, helps to strengthen them in preparation for the outdoors.

These are the tips I’ve picked up from experience. I hope you find them helpful and that everyone who reads this begins some plants of their own from seed!

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your comments

  1. That first photo is absolutely gorgeous!!

  2. Piee says:

    Loved this article. I’ve been thinking about growing some herbs and whatnot, but I didn’t have a clue on how to start!

  3. Nate says:

    Hi, this is my first year/attempt at gardening and noticed your article is very similar to the way i’ve been growing my seedlings. Anyway, I have several tomato seedlings which are arranged in a halved soda can (haha) and they’re growing pretty big (~2-3 inches or so). I can’t necessarily transplant them yet due to factors out of my control, but I’m scared that they’re too close together, some cups containing 3 or even 4 sprouts (similar to the bottom left of the picture above). Just wondering what the best method of dealing with this, am I paranoid, or is there a method to this that I haven’t discovered yet?

    Thanks,
    Nate

    • Amy says:

      Hmm. Usually I plant 2 seeds to a cell and snip/pull the weaker one. But I consulted some experts (okay, I googled), and my hunch seems right: basically, tomatoes don’t mind being handled. You could let them keep going for a while and separate them later.

      However, there’s 2 things to consider. One, don’t let them get root-bound. This just means they’re so big their roots are all tangled together in the pot in a big clump. Two, they will grow more slowly while being 3-4 in one cup, rather than if they had their own space to grow in.

      Are you going to grow them in pots or in a garden plot? Sounds like you will have many tomato plants!

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