By Engrid Winslow
Yes, it is time to get going starting seeds for your vegetables, herbs and flowers. Here are some things I have learned over the years that can make the process easier and help you to be more successful than ever before. One very important issue not discussed in this blog is the importance of soil. That’s a large topic that will be covered in my next blog on seed starting.
- Get organized – It’s so much easier to keep them organized but if you didn’t it’s important to assess what is left over before you start ordering more. Check seed viability chart below and here; (http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/1995/3-3-1995/seedv.html because some seeds are good for a few years (tomatoes, lettuce, celery, celeriac) and others should be purchased new every year or two (onions, peppers, parsnip, leeks, chives, salvia) while everything else falls somewhere in between. It’s also helpful to organize seeds by type (all of the greens together and all of the flowers side by side) and by when they should be started. That means cool-season greens, broccoli and cabbage first and hotter weather plants such as peppers, okra, tomatoes, and annual flowers are later. Contain them in a way that works for the number and type of seeds you have. Some storage systems to try are an alphabetic accordion file or a clear plastic bin with dividers.
- Be aware of what seeds need cold stratification – Want great germination results? Some seeds need a period of dormancy before they will germinate well. Check seed packets and websites for information on seeds that need a period of cold before you place them in a warm location. At least a few weeks in the refrigerator or sometimes a week in the freezer should do the trick. Some examples of seeds that need to chill before planting are spinach, snapdragons, poppies, milkweed (https://kenosha.uwex0.edu/2016/03/04/10402/, and perennial flower seeds.
- What seeds need to pre-soak? Just about every seed in the pea family and some other seeds will germinate better with at least a day of pre-soaking. These include celery, carrots, parsley, beans, peas, morning glory flowers and nasturtiums. Soaking first is especially important if you want to start these seeds outdoors but also helps with germination if you want to start them indoors. If you forget to pre-soak, cover them with not-quite-boiling hot water for an hour or so. And by the way, make sure that whatever medium you are starting the seeds in is nice and damp.
- Let there be light – Many smaller seeds such as lettuce, celery, kale and poppies should not be covered unless it is with a dome or a very light sprinkle of sand. Light is almost always needed for most seeds to break out of dormancy and that can be provided by artificial lights or direct sunlight. There are numerous options for artificial lights these days. When starting indoors without artificial light sources you will need to put them in a south-facing windowsill. Artificial light sources can be incandescent or fluorescent (never use a sunlamp because the high level of ultraviolet rays interfere with plant growth and are sure death to seedlings). There are specialized grow lights that combine light in the blue, white and red spectrum and run the gamut on cost. It may be trial and error as to types of light and their distance from the light source. Generally, if the light is less intense the closer it will need to be to the seeds and the light distance may need adjusting as the seedlings grow. A spindly tomato or pepper plant is a sure sign that they are not getting adequate light. Don’t keep the lights on all the time (14-16 hours is ideal) as plants do need a period of darkness (night).
- Don’t let them get too dry – It’s a sad thing when lettuce starts to germinate and then shrivels and dries up. The solution, of course, is to not let them dry out. Some tiny seeds do better when watered from the bottom until they germinate. You can use a sink or dunk tank to accomplish this. Most seeds need to stay fairly moist until they germinate and are strong enough to tolerate periods of dry. Be careful, though, as overwatering can lead to mold, brown leaf edges, and damping-off. Good air circulation is important and will combat many of these issues.
- Keep them warm – Seek out places in your house that are warm and free of drafts. Maybe on a rack above a space heater, on top of your refrigerator or behind a wood stove. If you can swing it, a heat matt can be the easiest and best solution. Most warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes, annual flowers and peppers will do much better with consistently warm temperatures.
- Watch for problems and provide a solution early – I swear by using liquid fish and seaweed, kelp, powdered mycorrhiza and compost tea for my organic seed starts but there are other great organic products that can provide trace nutrients such as nitrogen which will help boost the health of your baby plants. Again, this may take some investigation and trial and error.
- Be patient with the seeds – Some seeds just take longer to germinate than others and then, once they do pop up, they grow so slowly you may despair of ever planting them outside. Others will germinate inconsistently. Don’t give up if you have several pots of Swiss chard, spinach, datura or snapdragon that look “dead” next to ones that are up and looking great. Melons, cucumbers and squash are notorious for germinating inconsistently.
- Be patient with yourself! It takes trial and error, experimentation, and above all, TIME, to learn what works and what doesn’t. Some seeds that are “bulletproof” and start easily with few problems are arugula, carrots, kale, marigold, poppies and sunflowers. Talk to other gardeners, ask questions of friendly staff at your local garden center and join a local garden club. Don’t forget that you learn from failures and mistakes as well as successes all along the way.
- Buy this book – The best reference guide I have ever found is The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel. It is packed with tips, tricks and useful information, both general and specific to just about every seed you want to grow.