It’s that time of year friends. Seed catalogs are arriving daily and gardeners of all sorts are evaluating their seeds stocks, shopping with reckless abandon and preparing seed starting materials. Yes, Spring is less than two months away and we want to be ready to greet her with the warm embrace that is a collection of robust seedlings, ready for the annual migration to their summer home — your garden. If you’re new to the “start your own” process I’ve put together five quick tips to help facilitate your success. It’s not hard, but there are some lessons that I have learned the hard way that I thought might be worth sharing. Here goes.
1. Use Quality Soil
Whether you’re making your own seed starting mix (recipe by Mother Earth News available here) of purchasing prepared materials, you need light (not dense or filled with rubble), sterile seed starting medium to ensure that your seedlings are not battling debris or fungal and bacterial pests. Dense soil will compact easily, preventing proper root development and limiting necessary aeration and drainage. Any introduction of harmful fungi or bacteria will decimate your seedlings and it is difficult to truly rid your equipment of the problem once contaminated. I have tried many methods and/or brands, from expensive greenhouse kits to bagged soil in recycled egg cartons, and have found that Jiffy’s peat pellets are suitable for the average seed starting adventure. Plus, if you’re planning to share seedlings with friends and family, these are easy to distribute.
2. Temperature Matters
While many seeds are tenacious with a wide temperature range in which germination will take place, if you want to increase speed and efficiency you should keep your soil temp above 65F. Oregon State University provides a veggie-specific breakdown here, but the general trend is that germination rates drop off quite significantly after 65F, with 75-95F being considered optimal. Don’t panic, maintaining a consistently high temperature to induce germination can easily be achieved by placing a heating mat under your soil. If you don’t have a heating mat, try placing your starts on top of the refrigerator until they sprout, then move them to a sunny window.
3. Provide Ample Light
I know those big beautiful windows seems like they will do the trick, but even in the sunniest of windows your seedlings will likely lean toward the light. (photo above) If you turn them, they will repeatedly lean toward the sun and eventually become “leggy” with long weak stems. If you do not have the option to start your seeds in a greenhouse or temperatures prevent you from starting your seeds outside, I highly recommend the use of grow lights to ensure robust growth. There are many types available that provide different combinations of wavelengths and they do NOT have to be expensive. More information on Red & Blue Grow Lights can be found here.
4. Don’t Over Water!
I can’t stress this one enough. Consistent moisture levels are important for germination but your soil should NOT be saturated (aka sopping wet). Not only does this prevent the newly developed roots from getting adequate oxygen but it typically results in an ailment known as “damping off” where fungal growth infects the vascular system of the seedling causing them to die off just above the soil. Once this condition takes hold there is no saving your seedlings. Fusarium spp. and Pythium spp. are two common culprits but there are several microbes that can cause this effect. If you find yourself struggling with this issue year after year, the University of Minnesota provides a list of preventative measures here.
5. Air Circulation
This is a dual purpose suggestion. First and foremost, continuous air movement will reduce the likelihood of unwanted microbial growth on the soil’s surface by keeping the top layer dry. Secondly, a slight “breeze” will put just enough strain on your plants that they will invest more energy into developing a stronger stem. This minor improvement in structural integrity can make a big difference when you transplant your crops outside. Springtime tends to be unpredictable when it comes to weather and it is not uncommon for high winds and strong rain to wreak havoc on a newly planted garden. Give your precious starts a fighting chance by encouraging vigorous development in the early stages.
Seed starting can be a very exciting experience and it’s a great activity to keep little ones busy during winter’s gloomy months. It can also save you a significant amount of money and open the door to endless varieties that are not available at your local greenhouse or box store. However, some of these lessons are painful and can lead to unnecessary frustration. I hope that the suggestions above prove helpful and if any of our experienced seed starters have additional advice, please feel free to share in the comments below. Cheers, friends!