When you start your own seedlings indoors there is an excitement that comes from seeing those green sprouts emerge from the soil. You are on your way to growing delicious healthy vegetables to eat, beautiful flowering plants to look at and beneficial insects and butterflies to enjoy.
You may be asking yourself why I would want to go to the trouble of starting my own seeds when I can buy plants at the local garden shop in the spring. I think there are several good reasons to start your own seedlings.
When you start your own seed you can choose from any variety of vegetable, herbs or flower that can be grown from seed, not just the plants you find at your local garden shop.
You can control the quality and quantity. Grow as many or as few of what you need without being forced to buy in multiples or sizes that the garden shops are offering them in.
If you want organic plants your selection may be even more limited at the garden shops. Everything I will share with you in this article will be using organic methods
Depending on how many seedlings you are growing you can grow you own seedlings for much less money each year than buying them . The upfront cost for some of the equipment you will need can be spread out over many years.
Ordering seed from a catalog or online from just about anywhere in the country is easy and although there are some restrictions you can order seed from around the world. Seeds don’t weigh much and are relatively cheap to ship.
There are four things that seed need in the correct amounts to grow seedlings. Water, light, temperature and air supplied in the correct amounts will pave the way to a successful hardy seedling ready to plant in the garden. I have outlined seven steps below for you to follow to provide these four things in the correct amounts.
Selecting your varieties to grow is the first step. I like to subscribe to several seed catalogs so I can check for new varieties to try. Some seed catalogs have valuable information about how long it takes for seed to germinate and at what temperature. You can also look for DTM which stands for Days to Maturity. This will tell how long your seedling will take to mature or when it will be available to harvest. This is the time it spends in the garden after transplanting and not counting the time indoors at the seedling stage.
To decide when you need to plant your seeds indoors consider most seeds take about 6 to 8 weeks to reach a size that is good to be moved out to the garden. Determine the right date to plant outside in your climate and count backwards on the calendar to select the correct time to plant your seed.
Remember it is better to have short stocky plants than tall ones so don’t plant too early or your seedlings will be overgrown.
Select a potting soil to start your seed in. You need a seed starting mix that is fine but well drained. Many mixes are available that are a combination of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite with just a small amount of fertilizer. You can also look for a mix that meets organic standards and will have an OMRI label from the Organic Materials Review Institute. Be sure to add a little water to moisten soil before you fill your pots or seed containers. The soil should be moist to the touch but not soggy.
Select your pots and or containers to plant your seed in. You can use new or used plastic containers, just be sure you clean the used ones so that you don’t spread any disease. Peat pots are ok as well as homemade paper pots. Just be sure that water will drain through the container you choose.
If you are growing bigger plants like Tomatoes and Peppers you may want to first plant these seed into an open seed container and then when they have four leaves developed you can transplant them into individual pots. This extra transplanting will give you a chance to bury the stem deeper to make a shorter stockey
If you have more seed than you need in your seed packet be selective on which seeds to plant. There can be a difference in germination and vigor so select the plump seeds with good bright color.
I plant by hand by first pouring a few seed into palm of my left hand and taking a pinch of a few seeds with my finger and thumb with my right hand. I gently roll these seeds out from between my finger and thumb one at a time the best I can. Don’t worry if you drop two seed too close together occasionally because you can thin them with a pair of scissors later when they sprout.
I like to cover my seeds very lightly with fine vermiculite but if you don’t have that you can use some of the same potting soil you planted in.
All seed have a preferred temperature to sprout at. By reading seed packets and seed catalogs you can find the best temperature to sprout your seed. Most seed will germinate covered with a little soil exposed to the light so I like to have bright lights on as soon as germination occurs so that my seedlings don’t stretch and become weak. In the winter we are usually trying to sprout seeds that need warm soil. Most seeds need temperatures anywhere from 70 to 80 degrees to germinate. When the soil temperatures are lower you might get some seeds to sprout but the time it takes the seed to sprout will be longer. I use extra heat from electric heat mats to get my seed to germinate. After they sprout the seedlings can be moved to a cooler environment of around 60 to 65 degrees to grow on until it is time to move them outside and finally to the garden. While the seeds are on the heat mat I make sure they are well watered and stay moist. A cover over the seed like a plastic dome or inside a food container with a clear lid works good to keep a warm humid environment while the seed is sprouting. After I see the first two leaves unfold I remove the cover and move them to a slightly cooler environment.
Strong Light and Good Air Circulation
Very few gardeners will have enough light to grow seedling in their house. There is just not enough light coming through a window to keep the plants from stretching and getting weak. Artificial light hanging 3 to 4 inches above your plants will provide enough light. Grow lights work great but I have had good success with fluorescent and the newer LED lights. The key is to keep your seedlings directly under and close to the light. Putting your lights on timers and keeping them on 16 hours a day works best.
Good air circulation around your seedlings will help keep the leaves dry and discourage disease. Just placing a fan in the room can help. After the seedlings are up with 4 to 6 leaves a gentle wind that moves the leaves slightly will make the seedlings stronger.
Be sure to keep a close eye on your seedlings every day because they can dry out quickly and wilting will reduce the quality if not kill them. You can water with a mister bottle or when they need a little more you can use a water bottle to soak the soil good if you find they are drying out often.
Don’t worry about adding extra fertilizer in the beginning. Most seedling soil mixes will have a small amount. After the 4th or 5th week you can apply a quarter to half strength of a liquid organic fertilizer like fish emulsion. At this point temperatures need to stay at least above 50 degrees F and 65 degrees F would be optimum.
Continue with strong light 16 hours a day and good air circulation. Check on your new seedlings at least once or twice daily.
Before you take your seedlings out to be planted in the garden it is good to give them a few days to a week to adjust to the real world outside. As the weather permits move your seedlings outside to a place that is partly shaded from the sun and wind. As they get adjusted you can move them into more sunlight after a day or two until they can take the full sun all day just as they will be in the garden. You may have to do a lot of moving of the plants at this point because you don’t want to leave them out on a night that is below 40 degrees F. Having your pots in a tray will make this job easier.
After 6 to 8 weeks they should be rooted completely throughout the container you have them in and the plants should be thick and stocky. You can always grow them in the pot for another week or two if needed but better to not let them get overgrown and flopped over. It’s time now to put your strong, healthy plants into the garden.