Gardenscape Seed Starting Tips
When my friend Kim told me she was sorting her seed packets to determine which she needed to start indoors, it brought back memories for me. Years ago, I had a very large and productive garden, growing enough vegetables to can, freeze and dry.
Each winter, I’d joyously order my vegetable, herb and flower seeds for the year. After they arrived, and I’d sorted my seed packets, I’d pull out my supply of peat pots. I’d add water, watch the pots swell, scratch a little peat away from the top of each pot, and add my treasured seeds to each pot.
My husband would put the trays of peat pots on top of our water heater, since bottom heat aids germination, and we’d cover the trays with clear plastic tops to keep the humidity up. Each day we’d check the pots to be sure they were moist, but not wet, and would remove the plastic tops to let the pots dry out a little, when needed.
Before long seedlings would start emerging from the peat pots. The trays, with lids removed, would then be placed on top of our washer and dryer, since they were next to a south facing window. On cold nights, we’d pull the trays away from the windows, so the seedlings wouldn’t get chilled. Each morning we’d turn the trays, so the seedlings could grow evenly.
When seedlings germinate, the first set of leaves to emerge are the seed leaves. The second set are called the true leaves, since all the leaves the plant makes thereafter will look like the true leaves. Once the true leaves emerged, we’d start to fertilize the seedlings with a liquid fertilizer, mixed at a quarter the recommended rate, so we wouldn’t burn the seedlings.
On warm afternoons in April, we’d bring the trays of seedlings outside into bright shade, to start acclimating them to the outside world. This process is called hardening off. We’d keep them out of direct sun for a week or two, so we wouldn’t burn the seedlings. Each evening, before it got too chilly, we’d bring them back in the house.
Sometimes, if I started seeds too early, seedlings would outgrow the peat pots and I’d have to pot them up into larger containers to keep them healthy. This took up too much room in the house, so I paid more careful attention to the information on the seed packets, telling me how many weeks before the last frost date to start my plants.
I also learned which plants didn’t really need to be started in the house, like zinnias and cucumbers, since the seed germinates so quickly in the garden when planted after the soil has warmed up in May. I saved my indoor space for tomatoes, peppers and some of the more unusual things I wanted to try, like kohlrabi.
The process of starting seeds is so thrilling, I miss the experience. You can get many, many plants for a few cents apiece, making it the most economical way to fill up a large garden. It’s also the most time consuming, and fraught with potential disaster at every turn.
Damping off disease was a real problem for me and led to the demise of my seed starting adventures. The disease invades your seedlings, causing them to keel over and die. It comes from unsterilized potting soil and from allowing your seedlings to stay too wet. Using a soilless mix to start your seeds, now readily available, and keeping a close eye on your seedlings, can prevent this problem.
A close eye is needed too when hardening off seedlings outside. You can’t forget to bring your seedlings in at night, or place them in a shady spot in the morning that turns sunny and hot in the afternoon. You need to be home, and while you’re home, you need to pay attention.
That’s why I don’t start seeds in the house anymore. At this point in life, I don’t have the time to pay attention. I look forward to the day when I do have that time again, and can grow all the oddball things that appeal to me.
In the meantime, I buy seeds that can be directly sown in my garden, and haunt local greenhouses and the farmer’s markets for both the tried and true and the untried and unknown. I don’t mind spending the money on started plants. I know firsthand how much time and effort it takes to grow a seedling well.