Starting from seed

Today is probably the greyest, rainiest day I’ve seen since the middle of February, so no slogging around the Patch for me. (I had barely finished and saved this entry before there was a power outage!)

I did make it over there yesterday to do a bit of work – in between baking chocolate cakes as thank-yous for various people. I lay down a path’s worth of newspapers and covered them with grass clippings. I got a wheelbarrow’s worth of mostly-decomposed leaf mulch from the big ole pile of dead leaves the City makes every Fall outside our community garden (I’m stockpiling it for later, when I won’t be able to wield the wheelbarrow any more, and the veggies are planted and need mulch). I planted the first block of corn – which I don’t have high hopes for, seeing as I’m planting them two weeks before the last frost date. But hey, if there’s no frost, then I’m two weeks ahead… and if there is, well, corn doesn’t take very long to sprout, and I’ll just plant them again.

At this point I realized that it was 82 degrees and that I’d forgotten not only sunblock and bug repellant, but drinking water too. I went home and chugged a gallon or two.

Anyway, if I were to try to go out to the Patch today I would not only get very very soggy, but possibly struck by lightning as well, so on the whole it’s probably a better idea just to stay home and garden virtually.

My dad called a couple times recently to ask how I start all my plants; he recently got a few Earthboxes (and gave one to me to try out, so I’ll let y’all know how it turns out) and is has got sudden crazy veggie container gardening ambitions. I guess he’s never started anything from seed, though: so here’s a little picture tutorial.

Step 1: Light. Either buy a mini greenhouse kit that comes with fluorescents or grow-lights already installed, or build your own. Light from your window – even a south-facing window – is not enough. You want your seedlings as compact and robust as possible, so invest in a light source. Here’s my ghetto-fabulous setup: PVC, plywood, and fluorescents. (There are now three light fixtures per level, and I’d have more if they’d fit.) Ugly, but cheap, and I can dismantle it every summer.

Lower the bulbs on their chains to within 2″ of the top of the greenhouses. As the plants grow, raise the lights so they’re always an inch or so above them. You don’t wanna burn ’em.

Step 2: Buy peat pots and trays to put them in. Buy potting soil. Buy seeds.

I use the 2″ jiffy strips (but any brand will do) with only 4 boxes per row. (If I weren’t such a miser – and if I could find them easily – I’d buy 4″ pots just for the big guys: pumpkins, melons, zucchini, cucumbers, squash. As it is I use what I have and transplant them later.) You want peat pots because you plant, or transplant, them directly – no damage to the roots at all, which means less stress for the plant. (In reality you can use just about anything that provides drainage to start your seeds; I’ve used yogurt cups with holes in the bottoms, even egg cartons… but if you don’t mind spending $3.00 and saving a lot of effort in the long run, then these peat-pot-greenhouse-trays are totally worth it).

The trays you buy – they’ll be right next to the stacks of peat pots – nearly always come with clear plastic covers that you can invert over the bottoms to form mini-greenhouses. They keep the humidity just right – so the seeds never dry out – and you won’t have to water for a long time.

Miracle-Gro makes a special seed-starting potting soil too, but I haven’t seen any difference in seed performance. The seedlings will be in the pots for only about a month or less, so who cares? For these purposes, potting soil is potting soil. Just be sure you don’t use regular soil or compost at this point, because they compact too much to let the little seeds form a good root system – the basis for a healthy plant down the road.

As for seeds, buy what you like, but keep in mind that some plants (broccoli, onions, lettuce, kale, peas, etc.) need cool weather and are grown only in early Spring or the Fall. Use a seed-starting calculator like GrowGuide’s to find out when to sow, harden off, and transplant each kind. And oh, you won’t be bothering with any of this for seeds like peas, beans, corn, and carrots. Those you direct-sow in the ground.

Click the link below to continue reading: this post is gonna be a long one, I guess!

Step 3: Put them all together and wait.

The cukes you can see germinated in about 5 days; the average wait is between 6-10. (Eggplants and peppers seem to take longer).

Read the package instructions. Some seeds (like strawberries) require light to germinate, which means you can’t cover them up. Some require scarification, which means rubbing them gently with sandpaper, or nicking them with a knife, before planting them. Some require stratification, which means chilling them in the fridge for a bit.

Generally the rule is to plant the seed at a depth that is twice its diameter.

I plant two seeds per hole, which is usually enough to ensure that at least one comes up. Then I clip one right away if both germinate – don’t wait long enough that their roots can crowd each other and compete for nutrients. The rest of the seeds can go in a freezer bag (to keep out moisture) in the back of the fridge to wait for next year. They should keep fine for one year, though I tend to buy fresh seeds the year after that.

Step 4: Transplant once the plants get too big for their tiny pots.

You’ll probably only need to do this for the eager plants like tomatoes, the long-term-growers like peppers, and the beefy quarterbacks like zucchini. Along with any seeds you started too soon and now have to deal with somehow, before they get rootbound. Wait until they have at least a couple sets of real leaves, and check the bottom of the peat pot; if you see roots poking out down there, the plant might be ready for a little extra room. If not, wait a while longer.

Transplanting does more than just give the plant more room; it gives you an opportunity to feed the plant its first real “dinner”. This is the point at which you add compost to the soil (I like Leaf Gro, but that may just be a Maryland thing; any bag that says “compost” and lists a lot of things like leaves and wood and not a whole lot of stuff like manure and guano, should be fine and mild enough not to burn the baby plants).

It also lets you cover up some of the stem of plants that might have grown too spindly; it’s great to plant tomatoes successively lower and lower (clipping off any leaves that might get buried in the process) because their stems will form roots wherever they touch the soil. Which means big, whopping, deep root systems, which means big, whopping tomatoes. I didn’t have to water mine at all last summer, and they looked healthier than absolutely everyone else’s (did I ever feel special) and grew as tall as me. Just plunk that peat pot in the bottom of the next pot and pile compost and potting soil around it, gently packing it in around the edges.

I like to buy plastic pots for this purpose, because I reuse them every year and they don’t dry out as quickly as peat pots (it’s a challenge keeping the larger pots evenly moist).

Step 5: Wait. Find out your last frost date and (except for stuff you can plant before, like beets, lettuce, and spinach) be patient. No sense letting two months’ work go to waste because you couldn’t wait another week, eh?

Same goes for hardening off them seedlings. Set them in dappled shade for 2 hours, then 4 the next day, then sun for 2 hours, then 4, then 6, then 8, and make sure they always have plenty of water. When they’re finally hardened off you can plant them, but try and rig some sort of shade up over them for a couple days until they really get acclimated.

Of course, our tropical steam-bath MD weather is a bit harsher than what you have to deal with in, say, SoCal.


Well, that’s about all I have to say on growing seedlings… hopefully it’s clearer than I was able to make it on the phone. I better post this before the power goes out again!

One Response to “Starting from seed”

  1. omrei4 Says:

    Hola Dianita!
    Thanks for all the great information! It will help a lot. I think the problem with this type of picky thing is that a little error -like planting a day too soon- can ruin the work of weeks.

    After I talked with you yesterday I had to go out and empty out the big planter so that I can use the moisture retaining Miracle Gro potting soil (Hey! Did I get it right this time…? heh, heh!!!) and the compost. Unfortunately I didn’t find any “Leaf Gro” anywhere, so I ended up buying Kellog’s compost, the only one of two available. It has decomposed guano and stuff, and I am always worrying about over-fertilizing, specially after you told me not to… But both of them have it, the same as at Graebers, where they had a bunch more, all the same thing. So, I am mixing those two together, except adding a little of the “topsoil” I bought, which has 1/3 humus compost (they say.)

    Today I took Heidi to Hollister to see a quilt show, then we went on a ride Eastward, towards pinnacles. It has been sunny but very cold lately. I am glad I didn’t plant the seedlings yet. I will wait until it warms up. I have bought sun screen material to temper the sun while they are little. I am not sure how much to protect them from it. I also have to build a support thing, as the peas are already ready to fall over.

    I tell myself that half of what I plant may fail, so I am not disappointed if it does. But I will try my darnest to make sure it doesn’t, and next year I will be a pro. Like you!

    Thanks for taking the time to write all these instructions. You are a good writer, and it is educational as well as entertaining. Someday you will pick up that pen and start writing. I know. And then all that pain and suffering at MDU will pay off…

    I will send your blog link to other people in the family. Is that O.K. with you? Let me know.

    Love ya,
    Ypou look great! I have a suggestion: Get full length dresses to go along with the belly. I thionk you would look outstanding!

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