Seeds have the power to preserve species, to enhance cultural as well as genetic diversity, to counter economic monopoly and to check the advance of conformity on all its many fronts.-Michael Pollan
Starting seeds indoors, as opposed to directly sowing them in the earth, gives you, and your plants, some advantages. It lengthens the warm season for the plants by giving them a jump start. It also allows you to adjust for germination rates under 100% so you aren’t wasting space in the garden. Additionally, starting seeds indoors provides protection for vulnerable seedlings if, say, you have loose fowl or a garden cat that loves fresh herbs.
In January our home becomes a nursery. It starts as a giant incubator, with black trays of seemingly bare soil on a large rack in the dining room and on another in front of the windows in our bedroom. The lights suspended just above the trays wait patiently and slowly coax the life from the barely concealed seeds. We, in contrast, do not feel patient. (I hear you gasp, shocked. I seem so mellow.) I check the flats every couple of hours starting from the second day even though I know full well nothing will be born for at least 5 days and in many trays, up to 2 weeks.
The moment I level my eyes to the top of a tray and see the bent, faint green head of a seedling starting to emerge through the soil, I call my Mister and we do the happy dance.* Success! Live birth! It starts again!
I often describe the waiting for seeds to germinate as (infinitesimally) like the wait for a baby. In this case, several babies. The anticipation of life is so intense, I’m sure it is ingrained in our being.
So what do you need to do to experience this elation?
First, you need the right materials.
As I have mentioned, we have never had enough success with recycled egg cartons to bother with them so I recommend getting trays and cells (flats). You can get these from any garden supply catalog like Johnny’s. The cells are the inserts. Both cells and trays can be reused many times, especially if you don’t let them blow around the garden and don’t step on them (which happens more than it should around here.) If you are reusing them, it is recommended that you rinse them in a very weak bleach solution or sterilizing essential oil mix and then rinse in water. This is to prevent any bad bacteria or mold from spreading to the next round of vulnerable starts.
You can buy cells in varying sizes. I have had less success with 200 cell flats because, as we learned with the eggs cartons, the less growing medium involved, the more attention they need in the way of moisture regulation and the more likely they are to become detrimentally root bound if they have to stay in the cells longer than anticipated. So, if you aim for planting on your average frost free date and can’t because of a late cold snap, they are more likely to suffer than a plant in a larger cell or pot. We use a lot of 72 and 128 cell flats and save the 200 for mid season lettuce starting and other things we know will get out in a timely manner.
As for peat pots, they work well and we like them. My one caution is that you might want to peal off the bottom and even the sides of the pots when it comes time to transplant instead of sticking the whole pot in the ground. Some varieties of plants will have their roots stunted as they fight through the peat even though most can penetrate it.
Trays in your house should be leak-proof but in the greenhouse, where the water can run out of the bottom without damaging anything, you can use seedling trays, which drain from the bottom.
If you are using a rack with lights, do not choke at the price of the seed starting racks you see in catalogs. Yes, they are expensive, but you don’t need the official versions to do this. For 4 years we have been using an adjustable utility rack we got at a hardware store and shop lights on small chains with full spectrum light bulbs. I also have a rack we put in the windows and it has no lights. If you have a lot of plants to start and need a rack, this has worked splendidly for us.
You want a growing medium to fill your trays that is organic. I prefer a coconut based organic starting mix. You can use your soil but most are not optimal. It is recommended that you combine soil with something to help it retain moisture since seeds and seedlings should not completely dry out (at least not for long, absent minded folks:)
Some seed packets have instructions for planting depth and spacing, some don’t. The rule of thumb is that the smaller the seed, the shallower it is planted. When starting indoors, depth is all you will worry about until you take them out to transplant so save the packages you empty and, preferably, put them somewhere you will find them in 6 to 10 weeks.
Once you have your supplies, get to work.
Put your cells in your trays and fill them with your starting mix. You can tamp them down a bit. Some of your seeds will likely need to be only lightly covered. (These are the itty-bitty ones.) I like to put them down and then sprinkle starting mix over them to lightly cover. For larger seeds, use a popsicle stick or something (a pencil, your finger…) to make an indentation in the soil and then drop your seeds in it. I don’t go back and cover them until they are all in so I don’t lose track of where I left off. The moment you have the tray seeded, label it. I recommend a piece of masking tape on the side and a permanent marker. We have used crafting sticks and little plastic markers but they can be bumped or moved and water damaged to illegibility so, unless your domestic life is completely void of variables, go with the tape.
Start by lightly watering from the top, so the seeds get good contact, and then soaking from underneath. After the first sprinkle, you can just water by pouring it in the tray and letting it soak up through the bottom of the cells and saturate the soil. You don’t want them swimming and getting moldy but give them a good soaking and keep them from completely drying out. The ambient humidity will determine how often you need to water. I check ours daily.
Now, open your garden journal and write down everything you just planted. You’ll want to know what, specifically, and when so you can record your successes and failures and make adjustments next year.
Now, you wait…
And wait…I’m like an expectant parent in the maternity ward at this point. My husband calls home twice a day to see if anything has happened. Yes, we are like big kids. We are okay with that.
And then, when you are not looking, it will happen. Life. They will be born.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.-Albert Einstein
Don’t miss this miracle.
Seriously, the scientist in me is giving you permission, nay, encouragement to ingest this as a beautiful, even miraculous experience. Notice the pale, almost transparent stem, the first leaves that are still folded together as if they are a head before they separate and bloom, yawning and stretching under the life giving light. Too far? I don’t care. I love it.
Now call someone, brag and do your happy dance.* You can bet your britches I’ll write about it.
This really matters. Keep your lights, if you are using them, an inch above the starts once they are born. Then raise them every day or so to keep the correct distance. If you have the lights higher, the plants will reach too much and be spindly with weak stems.
We leave our lights on at least 12 hours a day. That is a good spring length here. I know people who recommend 14 but, in the deep south US, our plants go outside earlier in the year than many places, thus, while nights are longer. Check the day length on your expected frost free date and work your artificial lights up to approximately that duration. You do not need to be precise but your plants will appreciate not being shocked. Less than 12 hours means night is still too long for most spring and summer plants to thrive and they, unlike us, are still in tune with and controlled by their circadian rhythms.
We will discuss hardening your plants off and transplanting in the future. For now, enjoy starting seeds and be amazed at how fast they grow. (And keep your cat away from them:)
*If you don’t have a happy dance, I suggest you come up with one. It is freeing to look like an idiot wiggling around your abode. And I think it makes God smile.
Chew on this
Klaas Martens’ story of transitioning to growing actual food is inspiring and informative. Dig in.
Happy eating, Katy