Sow Those Seeds - Seed Starting Basics

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Last week’s post Get Your Stuff Together – Seed Starting Basics talked about the basic equipment needed to start seeds indoors. This week’s post helps you put that collection of gear into use. I also suggest you read my post about Testing Stored Seeds For Germination. It is a waste of time to use seeds that have poor germination. Testing is for seeds you have stored from past years not for fresh seeds bought this year.

Timing your seed starting is important for growing transplants that are not too immature or too over grown when you plant them in the garden. Check out my post   Seed Starting Times for Vegetables   to time your seed starting to its best advantage.

OK . . .  you have carefully scheduled your sowing times, you have viable seeds, you have gathered your gear – let’s plant!

Put your sterile, soilless medium into a large container, you need enough room to mix hot tap water into the medium with your hands. Adding hot tap water helps the peat based mix absorb water – cold water will cause the medium to float and just frustrate you. Many gardening books tell you to fill your containers with dry medium, plant the seeds, and set the containers in a tray of water. Then . . . you wait and wait and wait for the water to wick up into the medium. I have no patience for that. I use hot tap water and it absorbs quickly. Then I fill my containers with the medium, tapping the container on the table to settle air pockets.

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Sow your seeds in the warm, damp medium. Don’t plant too deeply – barely cover the seeds with the sterile medium. Label each container as it is planted. Trust me on this!! Sow seed, label, sow seed, label. If you line up containers and plant a row of them, and them go back and label them thinking you will remember what is what – – well – -good luck! Seed packets get jumbled, prepared labels move around, and then you have no idea what is what. Been there, done that! Sow a container, label it and move along to the next container. I label each container with the date it was sown and the name of the seed.

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Mist the surface of the soilless mix to settle in the seeds and cover it with plastic (a bread bag is perfect) to hold in the moisture and add warmth. Put your containers in a warm place – 70 -80°. The top of a refrigerator works well. Instead of a plastic bag I use a small styrofoam bottom heat unit. The bottom of the unit holds a 15 watt bulb and the whole thing looks rather like a styrofoam cooler.

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A flat of seeded containers is suspended over the bulb. The 15 watt bulb provides enough heat to keep the medium warm and aid germination.

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A plastic dome sits on top of the flat to hold in moisture and warmth.

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I check the containers twice a day and mist the surface of the medium if I think it is drying out. You don’t want the seeds to be dampened and then dry out. They should stay damp – notice I said damp NOT soaked! – until they germinate. As soon as you see green you have germination and the seedlings need supplemental light,  move the container to a light source.

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Remove the plastic or remove from germination unit and place the container 1-2 inches away from a two bulb fluorescent light. I keep my lights suspended by chains and S hooks. I can easily raise or lower the lights as needs dictate. Be patient, some seedlings germinate in a few days and some may take a few weeks.

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Yay!! You did it! Now you must keep the tiny plants close to the light 15 hours a day – use a plug-in timer. The dark is just as important as the light so don’t keep the lights on constantly. Day time temperatures should be 60-70 degrees and, at night, when the lights are turned off the temperature should be between 50-60. A good rule of thumb to remember is “Germinate warm and grow cool”. If you keep seedlings too warm they grow soft and succulent. You want short, stocky, well-rooted transplants. When your seedlings grow their second set of leaves – the first set are the seed leaves or cotyledons, the second are the true leaves or the leaves that look like a tomato or pepper or whatever you planted, you will need to fertilize them once every 10 days. I use half strength fish emulsion or a seaweed fertilizer.

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What I have shared is what has worked for me for many years. As you begin to sow your seeds and go through the process you will, no doubt, develop your own system – do what works for you. I have given you the basic steps – you fine tune the details as you go along. I recommend that you keep a journal of your experience. Write down successes and failures and, yes, there will be failures along the way!  Don’t be discouraged – just try again. Gardening is an art – everyone has to find their own way of doing things.

If you have a real interest in seed starting I recommend The New Seed Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel.
ISBN 0-87857-747-5 (hardback) or 0-87857-752-1 (paperback). The first edition of her book is what kick started my seed starting journey.

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Stay tuned for my next post “Transplanting/Hardening Off Seedlings – Seed Starting Basics”.

Hey from the farm,
Fran     The Country Cousin

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