The tag end of winter means it is time to prepare for the upcoming warm weather. This means you will have the annual pleasure of perusing all those seed catalogs that arrived while you were busy with winter holiday events.
It’s always fun to see what is new, and interesting to see which seed choices make the cut – if you happen to be someone who cross references past issues. Why would you keep track of this? Sometimes, how often a particular seed type is included in successive years is an indication of quality.
Seeds On Hand: Now What?
So now you have your seed in hand – no matter whether you had a mail order delivery, or you browsed the racks at the local retail home and garden stores. The first thing to do is to know your seed. By this, I mean you should know whether your seed should be direct-sowed outdoors, or begun early inside. All seed packets will have this bit of growing information, no matter how brief. Your own experience should also guide you.
What Containers Should You Use?
This is one of those concerns that will release the creative “you” when choosing. The most important factor is to choose a container that will allow for root growth – though overly large size containers can discourage good seedling development. One reason for this is that we tend to overwater a large pot, and too much water will encourage pathogenic fungi and will discourage root development. In fact, too much water can cause root rot. So, use the Goldilocks rule and choose a container that is not too small or too large.
Any small container will work. It isn’t really important what materials produced the container. They can be ceramic or plastic or bio degradable. The seedling will not care. Many prefer plastic because they are durable as well as light weight. Bio degradable seedling pots have the advantage where one can plant the container and seedling all at once. The roots are less stressed when you used a bio degradable container.
Many like to recycle previous year’s cell packs as well as other small containers that held, at one time, a special plant for the garden. There is really no reason not to re-purpose these, just make sure the pots are thoroughly cleaned, and then soak them in a 10% bleach water bath for several minutes. 10% roughly translates to 1 part of bleach to 9 parts of water. Then, rinse these soaked containers in clean water, and let them air dry before using. Properly sterilized seed growing containers will reduce the chance of pathogenic fungi or insect eggs still being active on the pots.
Choosing the Proper Potting Media
What type of potting media you use is a bit more important. The media should be light weight. It should allow excess water to drain away – and it doesn’t need additional fertilizer. Seeds contain all the necessary nutrients they need until growth is well underway. In fact, over fertilization will discourage growth or even kill your seedling.
Many prefer to use sterile perlite or a light perlite blend media. Perlite is a small white “stone” that has a rough surface that grabs and holds only so much water. The rest is allowed to run off. Perlite is a volcanic stone that has been heated to a high temperature. When air is added, the hot stone puffs up just like popcorn.
Some prepared media often are labeled as seed starting blends. This takes the guess work out of which of the many choices to buy. Sometimes the easiest test is to lift a bag. If it feels fairly light weight then you are probably safe to choose it. Avoid those labeled as garden soil or fill dirt. These will be too difficult to use for indoor seed starting.
Are There Light Requirements?
Sufficient light will be necessary once the seedlings sprout. Some seeds require darkness to germinate, and some require light. Placing your container in a sunny south window will be a good area to start your seed. The natural light and dark cycle of the day should provide the right amount of light and dark for germination of all seeds.
Once the seedlings sprout, you may need additional light for superior seedling development. A south facing window may not provide sufficient light levels. You will generate better results with a wide spectrum aquarium plant light which is an inexpensive option. There are some LED lights that are becoming more reasonable too. High Metal Halide lights are over kill, though – they produce quite a bit of heat, and use a lot of electricity.
Watch the length of the stems on your seedlings. When they become too long and begin to fall over, you will know that they haven’t been getting enough light. Thin wobbly seedlings are starving. They become too weak to battle fungi or insects. If you don’t act quickly to increase the light level, you will lose these leggy seedlings and have to start over again.
Watch the Thermometer
Seeds have gone through evolutionary processes to become acclimated to specific soil and air temperatures that let them know it is the right time to germinate. The seed will sprout in a small range of temperatures, which help them to know that the proper temperature has stabilized for the plant to grow and flourish.
This information is often printed with the directions on your seed packet. Sometimes the directions are a bit vague and may only say something like “when the soil has sufficiently warmed.” You may need to research that type of seed on the Internet if the directions are not enough to make a wise decision.
Heat Mats for Seedlings
Seedling heat mats are not terribly expensive. The basic models are preset at temperatures most seedlings desire. It does help to have a thermometer handy, just take temperatures over many locations on the mat – there are built in wires that provide the heat, and uneven temperatures are common with these mats. Sometimes it is even helpful to place small dowel rods or ceramic tiles on top of the mat but below the flats that hold your containers. This intervening layer diffuses the heat. Be sure your flats do not leak to avoid possible danger from shock.
There are optional thermostatic controls that allow you to control temperatures better, to accommodate specific temperature ranges. (These controls do not affect the uneven heat you may experience with your mat.) Better germination will happen for a specific type of seed when the right range is chosen.
When to Start Your Seed
Knowing when to start your seed is also very important. Experience will help considerably, so keep notes for future seed starting. The back of your seed packet should provide a window for when to start your seed. Because seed is sold over many growing zones the brief table or directions will be fairly obscure.
Often you will find directions like “start your seed 6 weeks before planting out.” First, this direction lets you know that it is fine to start your seed indoors. Secondly, you won’t have to be that precise about the exact start date. You will need to know your own spring climate development to help you with this problem.
The directions are general enough to allow for unusual weather for your particular spring. Simply place your seedling outside in a sheltered area if for some reason they aren’t quite ready to plant out should spring be progressing too quickly. Or, if the spring is too cold, you can always up-size to a larger container and let them continue to grow inside.
Hardening Off Seedlings
Here is just one last bit of advice before planting your seedling in a permanent location: Be sure to harden off your seedlings. This means to be careful and gradually allow them to get used to the high light levels of the sun and wind. Place your seedlings in a shady location with good wind protection initially. Then, over the course of a week or so, gradually move them to higher light levels until you reach the right amount of light for full sized plants. In addition to allowing the young plants to become accustomed to the proper light and wind conditions, you will also be encouraging stronger seedlings ready for active growth.
Starting Seeds Is Not Too Hard
As you can see, most of this is not too hard. There is plenty of room for error as well. You can use a variety of containers -as long as the soil doesn’t hold excess water, you should be fine. Most people keep their homes at temperatures that encourage seed growth. A good south facing window will allow you to grow seedlings even if they are a bit leggy. They will fatten up soon once you harden them off before proper planting. Little or no additional requirements are really necessary for most common grown seeds.
Growing plants from seed is educational and fun . . . a rare combination these days.