Get Your Stuff Together - Seed Starting Basics

I began to grow my own garden transplants over 40 years ago when I wanted to plant a large garden to feed my family and realized that I could not afford to buy all of the transplants I would need. Since then I have honed my skills and have learned to successfully raise all of the  healthy transplants I need – plus some to share.

If you are a ‘grow your own’ newbie  my first suggestion would be to get organized and gather all the needed “stuff”.  Getting organized before you start helps the entire process flow along without the kind of hitches that could mean failure. So . . . let’s begin . . . you will need . . .

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SEEDS –  Try to order or buy your seeds as early as you can so you can get started when you should. Nothing is more frustrating than being ready to start your seeds and finding out that your order is delayed or, even worse, they are out of the seed you need. Store your seeds COLD and DRY. Keep them in a tightly closed jar along with a packet or two of a dessicant in the refrigerator.

Seeds in refrigerator

If you look closely at the jar of seeds – at the right center of the jar, you can see a small packet of  dessicant. Dessicants are found enclosed in aspirin bottles or tucked into new shoes or purses.  The silica gel in the packets absorbs moisture in the jar thus keeping the seeds very dry. One year I found a big handful of dessicant packets all over the floor and on the shelf around a glove rack at a local discount store. I asked if they minded if I took them and ended up with about 15 packs for my seed storage. The picture below shows a small part of my dessicant collection.

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If you have saved seeds from past years you will need to test for germination before you plant. Check out my post on Testing Stored Seed for Viability.

CONTAINERS – Just about all of my seed starting containers are recycled “stuff”. Mushroom boxes, I Can’t Believe It’s Not butter containers, cut off milk cartons, plastic boxes from fresh strawberries, and anything that is at least a few inches deep.

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You will need to make holes in the bottom of your containers so water drains through. I use a small paring knife to make the holes.

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If your containers previously held soil you should sterilize them by soaking them in a bleach/water solution of 1/10. This kills the microorganisms in soil that can cause a problem called Damping Off. This problem surprises you – you go to bed thinking all is well with your seedlings and wake up to find the stems withered right at the soil line. Damping Off organisms destroy the stem at the soil line and the seedling will not recover.  AAHAUGH!!! So . . sterilize any pots that previously held soil.

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You can also make your own paper pots with a Pot Maker  I have had one for many years and I love it. Whenever I teach a seed starting class I ask if anyone has a Pot Maker and what they think about it. 100% answer  “I LOVE it!” To use the Pot Maker you need strips of newspaper – I cut mine about 4×18 inches. Hold the top piece of the Pot Maker in one hand and wind the newspaper strip around the column of wood, press the bottom of the paper strip into the bottom of the column and press it tightly with the bottom piece. TaDa! You have just made your very own pot. The best thing about paper pots is that you can plant pot and all right into your garden. The newspaper will disintegrate. You can also manipulate the pot by changing the length of the paper strip. If I am planting, say, sweet peas that I will germinate and plant promptly into the garden I make my paper strips 4×18. If I am planting or transplanting something like celery, that will stay in the pot longer I might make the paper strip a few inches longer so the pot is a bit heavier for longer term stability.

SOIL – Seed starting mixes are made of Canadian Peat, Vermiculite, and Perlite – 1-1-1. They may also contain a bit of lime to adjust the pH and something to help the mix absorb water. This soilless mix is important for seed starting because it is sterile and helps prevent Damping Off. You can easily make your own by buying bags of the three components and mixing it yourself. If you have to use a mix with soil you can sterilize it in your oven at 180° for 1/2 hour – be aware – it stinks when heated!   A seed starting mix must be loose so newly emerged roots penetrate easily and small plants are easily removed for transplanting. Look for something labeled specifically for seed starting or mix your own.

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LABELS –  You will need to label your pots with the starting date and variety name. I recycle window blinds for my labels. Simply cut away the strings and support pieces and cut the strips into the length needed. Use a black Sharpie to write on the strips. I know Sharpies come in red, blue, and green but, trust me on this, black lasts the longest.

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Lights – You will need 4 foot fluorescent lights to grow healthy seedlings. I know many gardening books suggest you “just place your seedlings in a bright, sunny window” but I live in northern Ohio and we just do not have enough of those “bright sunny days” to provide the light needed. So . . . a four foot shop light is the minimum length necessary to get you enough light candles to grow healthy seedlings. You can use 2 grow light bulbs or use a cool white and a warm white bulb in each unit – either way you will get the whole light spectrum plants need to grow well. Plug your lights into an inexpensive timer (set for 15 hours) and you will save yourself a lot of checking in on your plants. Here is a picture of my plant unit – three shelves – each with side-by-side 4 foot fluorescent  lights. I can get 4 flats of plants on each shelf. The unit is surrounded in plastic with a loose piece of plastic that reaches across the top and down to the floor in the front. I can gather the front piece together and stuff it on  top of the unit when I water or work with the seedlings.

This is my “most important stuff” list for growing healthy seedlings. Stay tuned for my next post – Sowing Seeds – Seed Starting Basics – coming very soon!

Hey from the farm,
Fran          The Country Cousin

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