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The Basics – Starting Seeds

This is the first in a series on starting anything with the garden. There are three things that a seed needs to start growing. A growing medium, such as soil, light, and water. You can start a seed with these three things, Mother Nature does it all the time!

Starting seeds does not need to be an expensive endeavor. Some things that you will need:

  1. Seed tray
  2. Seed starting medium, you can use regular soil, but regular soil may contain pathogens that would be harmful to seedlings.
  3. Seeds

First you need to be sure that the item you are wanting to start from seed likes to be started from seed. Some root plants such as carrots and those with fibrous root systems, like corn, like to  be started in their permanent location. Transplanting may cause too much damage to the root system for the plant to recover from.

Second you want to be sure that you are starting the seeds at the right time in the season. You can find a good seed starting chart here. This is a chart that Mother Earth News put out some time ago. Some plants like carrots, broccoli, and lettuces should be planted later in the summer in the Pacific Northwest because of the fluctuations of our seasons. This will reduce the possibility of bolting due to a cool spell we may have in the middle of summer. Like this year.

So lets get started! You will want to get your seed tray out and fill the cells with the growing medium. It will shrink down once you have planted the seeds and watered them. Next plant seeds in the cells. Be sure to read on the seed packet how deep in the cell to plant the seed. Most plants need their own cell to start in, but planting multiple seeds gives the ability to weed out the less than best ones and allow for the best to thrive in each cell. I usually plant 2-3 seeds in each cell. Be sure to label the seed locations. I use masking tape and a permanent marker to distinguish each row of cells.  I usually devote one or more rows of cells to a specific seed. I only plant what I think we will eat throughout the summer/early fall. If I don’t like it, I won’t plant it!

You will need to find a warm southern window, or invest in a grow light and heat pad for the seeds. The light and pad will run you about $75-80 for a basic 50-cell tray setup. Many online retailers have them for competitive prices.   I decided early on that I wanted both. I figured that then I could choose where I wanted my seeds to be.  I also went to my local big box store and picked up a piece of rigid insulation and a spray bottle. I use the insulation as a a base for my seed setup, and it helps to insulate the heat mat from the floor below. The spray bottle is helpful for keeping the soil moist when the seeds are just starting and you don’t run the risk of flooding the seeds out.

If you do decide to get a heat mat and lamp, be sure to turn off the lamp at night, plants need to sleep too! Each and everyday, twice a day, remember to water the seeds, and check on them to see how they are doing. I usually water them when I turn on and off the lights. I am there already, so why not?

You will need to provide constant care for the seedlings for up to 12 weeks, depending on the variety. You will then need to harden them off prior to putting them out in the garden for good. Hardening them off requires you to first remove the heat mat, if applicable, and allow the seedlings to acclimate to the lower temperatures of its roots. Then gradually start leaving the seedlings outside during the day to get them ready to stay outside. Once the nightly temperatures have warmed beyond the threat of frost, and the daily temperatures are above 50 degrees, you can start to leave the plants outside overnight. On nights that may be cooler, you may want to think of a cover of sorts for your garden beds. There are many different kinds of row covers out there, you can see what works for you.

What have you learned starting your plants from seed?