How To Start Seeds 101
Gosh, it feels like spring outside this week. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, cows are calving, and the days are getting longer. All signaling, before too long, it will be time to get started planting in the garden and fields. In the past few years, I’ve enjoyed getting ahead in the the garden, by starting my own seeds. I thought today would be the perfect time to share the best steps on How To Start Seeds 101!
How To Start Seeds 101 – Supplies
Don’t let this supply list scare you. Most of the supplies can be found at your local hardware or farm store, big box store, or even ordered online. Plus if you take care of them, many of the bigger items, can be used year after year.
- Flower and Vegetable Seeds
- Seed Trays
- Also called seed plugs or seed flats
- Leakproof Tray
- Used for bottom watering
- Clear Acrylic Dome Lid
- Used to cover tray to promote germination
- Heat Mat
Sometimes you will be able to find all four elements (or at least the seed trays, leakproof tray, and dome) above in a “seed starting kit” sold together in stores.
- Seed Starting Mix
- This is different then regular potting soil. Seed starting mix contains ingredients that are lighter and make it easier for tender baby plants to germinate and push through the soil.
- For dusting the tops of the trays, as a very light layer to cover seeds.
- Plant Tags
- Help label what seeds are planted in which trays
- Shelving and Lights
- Once the seeds germinate it’s import to have light in order for the plants to grow. You can purchase a growing system online or set up your own with a shelving unit, some shop lights suspended above each shelf with chain or rope.
How To Start Seeds 101 – Step-by-Step Instructions
Filling and Planting
- In a container (I use an old Cool Whip container) moisten the seed starting mix with water until it is completely damp, but not soaking/dripping wet. See picture below.
2. Fill seed trays with the dampened seed starting mix. Tap the trays firmly against the table as you fill (or gentle press down) to help the soil settle and prevent air pockets from forming in the trays.
3. Poke a small hole in the center of each cell (the general rule of thumb is to plant the seed twice as deep as it big). I usually do this with a pencil or chopstick.
4. Drop one (or two) seeds into each hole.
5. Cover the seed with a light dusting of vermiculite or more of the seed starting mix. Don’t cover the seeds too deep.
6. Label the tray with the variety of seed and, if desired, the planting date.
7. Set the planted tray into a shallow tub or tray filled with about an inch of water. Let the tray sit in the water and soak up the moisture for about an hour. Don’t water the tray’s from overhead as it may displace your tiny seeds.
8. Once the the plantings have soaked for about an hour, remove them to a leakproof tray and place onto your heat mat.
9. Cover the trays with your clear dome lid. The dome creates humidity and keeps the soil warm and moist. Check the soil after 2 or 3 days. If it is starting to get a little dry, pour some water into the bottom of the tray and let the soil soak it up.
10. Check the trays daily. Once 50-75% of the seeds have germinated, remove the trays from under the dome. (Note: if you planted multiple varieties under a single dome. Split the full tray into more manageable “6-packs”. That way as different seeds germinate you can take out one 6-pack at a time.)
11. Place sprouted seedlings under a shop light, adjusted so the light is only about 2-3 inches above the top of the plants. Seedlings need about 14-16 hours of light each day. To make things easy, I usually set the lights to turn on and off with a timer.
12. Congrats! You’ve started your flowers and vegetables from seed. Now it’s time to take care of your little babies until it’s time to plant outside in your garden.
How To Start Seeds 101 – Troubleshooting
Too much water. Too little of water. All of which can cause issues with your new baby plants. Check seedlings daily and water when the soil starts to appear dry. While the plants are still tiny and tender, I usually just bottom water (as detailed above). Once the plants get one (preferably two) true sets of leaves, it is usually safe to water from above.
Damping off is when your baby seedling get a fungal disease and die. This usually happens when you leave the plants under the clear dome lid for too long. Remember once 50-75% of the seedlings have emerged, remove from the lid.
Starting Seeds Too Early
I still find myself doing this. I want to get a jump on starting my seeds for the year and soon I’m overrun with plants and nowhere to go with them. Read the instructions on the back of each seed packet. They will let you know when you should be starting the seeds relative to your last average freeze/frost date.
Seedlings are “Leggy”
We’ve all been there. One minute your tomato plants have barely popped through the soil. And the next they are 4 inches tall and “leggy”. I fix this a couple of ways:
- If the plant has at least one true set of leaves, you can usually re-pot the seedling. Fill another pot or six pack partially with soil. Then using a plastic spoon, gently lift the “leggy” seedling from its old pot and place, deeper, into the new pot. Gently fill in soil around the steam of the plant to support it.
- Place the re-potted seedling closer to a light source. Make sure the seedlings are centered under the light only about 2-3 inches above the top leaves. Seedlings usually get leggy because the light source is too far away that the plants “stretch” to be closer to it.
- Another way I try to help create stronger plants is by having a fan, on low, blow on the baby seedlings. This helps with creating stronger steams, mimicking an outdoor environment, and creating necessary circulation/ventilation for the seedlings.
Not “Hardening Off”
As time gets closer to planting your seedlings outdoors, it’s important to “harden off” the vegetable and flower plants you have spent weeks caring for. Usually a week or two before I plan on placing the seedlings in the ground, I start getting them acclimated to a harsher outdoor environment. Without hardening off your plants, you run the risk of shocking your plants and causing them to die once outside in the elements.
- Place the seedlings into a tray (so they can easily be transported) and take them to a sheltered spot outside for about 2-3 hours. For the first day, I usually place the seedlings in a shaded (but warm) area on the north side of our house that is protected from the wind.
- Everyday over the next week or two, I start increasing the time the plants are outside and rotating them to a place that receives more sun, wind, and other elements throughout the day.
- Once the danger of frost has passed, go ahead and plant the seedlings into the garden.
Congrats! You’ve now raised your tiny plant from it’s newborn stage through high school graduation. It is now time to send them off into the world and see what beauty and bounty they can create!