Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Starting From Seed

There are lots of books out there with lots of information on starting seeds. I’m going to trust that you know how to use the library to look up information on the seeds you plan to start. What I’ll share with you here is my own system for starting seeds. It’s not the premiere master gardener version of organic gardening, but it’s the version that works in my basement which is where my own personal master garden begins.

First thing you need is a place to start seeds. This can be big and fancy and expensive and purchased through some big and fancy gardening supply company, or it can be a simple book shelf with a grow light affixed to the top of the shelf. Some people also use a sunny window. I haven’t got a sunny window available that is safe from children or critters, so I stick to my homemade light box in the basement. Sunny windows can also be too cold for some seedlings. My box (pictured) is a simple coffin model made out of plywood. A light is hung by chains that descend through a hole in the top of the box. I can raise and lower this light simply by pulling the chains up through the hole and securing them with my high tech 10-penny nail, but you can also use a stick or pencil. The advantage of raising and lowering your lights is that you can keep them close to your plants and raise them as the plants grow. Lights that are too far away from the plants can grow pretty spindly seedlings. The side of my coffin/grow box is removable so I can access the trays of seedlings.

Of course I outgrew that box, so on the top of the box we created another grow area for older seedlings that don’t need as much warmth. These seedlings grow under lights that descend from the ceiling. I can start several hundred plants this way. Basically you need a place where your seeds will have access to light 12-16 hours a day and be relatively warm and out of harm’s way. You also want to put them somewhere you won’t forget about them and neglect to water them. Oh, one more thing – you need a light timer unless you think you can remember to turn on and off your lights every day. (You can’t. Really, you need the timer.)

Once you’ve secured your growing location, the next step is containers, growing medium and of course, the seeds. There are many systems for seed starting that can be purchased through garden centers and hardware stores. I’ve tried quite a few. I don’t recommend them. The seed “pellets” are basically compressed seed starting medium that will get your seeds started, but take them no where else without a lot of help. I once used seed “tubes” which were long skinny tubes of compressed seed starting medium which reminded me of the test tube shooters they used to hand out in bars at happy hour (do they still do that? I’m so old and beyond the bar scene, I wouldn’t know. Happy hour to me is about 9:30 at night when the last kid has gone to bed.). The seed “testtubes” really were super space efficient, but fell apart when I went to transplant them. I’ve also tried making homemade pots out of newspaper, which I liked because of the whole re-purposing/recycling angle, but was actually a lot of work and pretty messy. I suppose you could buy plastic seed starting containers or re-use containers you purchased seedlings in (if you save them). What I use is old yogurt containers. They are the perfect size and abundantly available. I use a drill to poke three little holes in the bottom so they will drain. I use the tiny yogurt containers to start onions because they don’t seem to need as much space and I need to start so many onions. If I’m starting a new tomato, I might use a sour cream container to give it plenty of room, but mostly I use the regular size 6-8oz yogurt container. When I’m finished with them I rinse them and stack them and can use them again.

When it comes to dirt, I make my own. The seed starting mediums that are out there drive me nuts. They are too light and don’t retain water so well and are only meant to “start” seeds, not grow them. So if you use a straight seed starter from the store, you’ll need to transplant your seedlings to a growing medium as soon as they are viable. I only want to transplant my seedlings once – when I put them in the garden. There’s too much danger of hurting the plant when you move it, plus who wants twice the expense and twice the containers? To start and grow seedlings I use organic spaghnum moss mixed with organic potting soil. You can also add vermiculite and/or compost if you have it. I always seem to forget to buy the vermiculite and I save the compost for the garden, so although I have other intentions, every year I seem to use the moss and the soil and it works out fine. The moss keeps the soil light and allows the seed room to get going and potting soil feeds it as it grows in to a hardy seedling. This works for me, but you do what you want. Either way works, I’m just all about keeping it simple.

Before you put your precious seeds in to your growing medium, you need to prepare the soil. I fill the pots and even tuck in the label of what I’m going to plant (popsicle sticks work great for labels and can be used at least four times, once on each end). When they are ready, I place the yogurt containers in plastic trays (re-purposed under-the-bed boxes). I fit the yogurt containers snugly against each other so they won’t float when I water them. Then I moisten the soil by filling the trays they sit in with water so that the pots can soak up moisture. When the top of the soil is moist, I’m good to go. You have to pay attention to how much water you use because you don’t want waterlogged soil. Misting the soil from the top only succeeds in getting the top wet and will quickly dry out. As long as you’re cool with misting several times a day, that’ll work. I haven’t got time for it so I water from the bottom. Keep the trays somewhere warm. Ideally you want the soil to be 70 degrees, but my house won’t be that temperature until June, so I cover my soil with plastic wrap and hope for the best. I’ve been able to start nearly all my seeds with this method, so I’m fairly certain the 70 degree idea is a fairy tale.

Some seeds benefit from being soaked for a few hours or overnight. Read your seed packet or check out a copy of Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, a great resource. If you’re serious about organic gardening you’ll need to budget for buying a copy. It was revised recently and will set you back $25 new, but it’s been in print for 50 years, so I’m sure you can pick up a used copy for much less.

Germinating most seeds doesn’t require any light. I plant my seeds and cover the trays with plastic. Then I place the trays in the warmest room in my house. Once a few little green noses poke out of the soil, I move them to the light box. From there it’s just a matter of monitoring the moisture in the soil. I generally plant 3 or 4 seeds to each container and then thin them out later, keeping the strongest plant.

Timing is pretty critical when it comes to deciding what to start when. You need to know your last frost date for your area. From there you count backwards. Onions need about 12 weeks and can be planted when the soil is still cool, so they’ll be hitting the pots this week around here. Tomatoes can’t go in until the soil is warm, so I won’t be starting them until late February/early March. If you want to try your hand at growing annuals, you need to start soon. Impatiens and pansies take a good 12+ weeks to get started. This is where a good book on gardening comes in. Figure out what you want to grow and develop a timetable for making it happen.

Growing your plants from seeds is not only much less expensive than buying plants, but it increases your options – you can grow just about any variety you can find a seed for. When you purchase your plants already started, you have a much meager selection, plus you don’t know how they were raised. I haven’t really seen any organic plants for sale at the garden centers in the past few years. Maybe they’ll have them this year, but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll cost twice what the traditionally grown plants will cost. So there’s price and selection to consider, but there’s also the satisfaction of doing something yourself. That’s priceless. And you can do this. Starting plants indoors from seeds is not difficult. No master gardening degree needed. I promise you’ll enjoy the time spent nurturing your “babies”. I cherish the time spent in my basement, all alone with my plants and my dreams.


  1. I'm definitely getting seeds from Landreth and starting some flowers! Last year I bought beautiful dahlias from a local grower and they were all invested with white fly! Completely destroyed in spite of numerous treatments and scars on both my thumbs from the spray bottles.

    So, time to try my own.

  2. Inspiring...I'm starting mine today with my plastic Black & Decker shelf, 24" shop light, and Landreth seeds! Makes me feel like Spring is near!

  3. This helps a lot! Thanks for your card at the gardening seminar! Getting started on my first garden, started some seeds today!