Many think that starting seeds is only a matter of sticking a seed in soil and waiting for it to sprout. In fact, to have a strong plant to grow in the garden, there are some important steps to follow when starting the seed.
I had my fair share of killing seedlings before I perfected the seed starting skills. It does take some time, but in the end, it was worth it.
Why start seeds?
There are many reasons why one would prefer to start their own seeds.
- The limited choices offered by the stores. Gardeners usually like to try new varieties, and many like to grow things to recreates memories. Seed catalogs offer more variety for that matter.
- Saving money is another reason you may choose to start seeds. If your purpose of growing is to feed a family, the price will add up to get all you need. bottom line, if you are planting more than five plants, better start your seeds.
- Getting a head start for the season. While waiting for the new season, get your plants going and strong.
- Starting seeds becomes an emotional experience for a gardener. Every season is a new beginning of a new life cycle. Taking care of the seedlings becomes similar to caring for a baby.
Not all seeds need to be started
This is very important to know. Not every seed needs to be started indoors. Some plants have delicate root systems, making it difficult to transplant without stressing them out, or the seed is big and fast to germinate. Some examples are carrots, broad beans, garlic, and seed potatoes.
Many gardeners advise against seed starting root crops, green beans, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber. However, from experience haven’t faced any issues with them started indoors. The key is to handle the root ball the least possible at planting time. You may read more about it in my other post on how to grow turnips and beets.
How to start seeds?
1- Use the right medium
It is very important to use the right soil for seed starting. It will ensure good germination as well as growth. The seed starting mix should have the following criteria:
- Lightweight: to allow the delicate growth to push through.
- Well-draining: to prevent rot and dumping off.
- Balanced water retention: so it does not dry out fast.
- Sterile: to prevent the development of diseases and bug infestation.
You can use store-bought seed starting mixes for a start, but once you feel more adventurous and want to grow more, it will turn out costly. You may check out my recipe to make your own here.
2- The right time for the right seed
Before starting seeds, you need to know the appropriate time for each given variety. Central Texas gardeners are lucky to grow all year round, however; every crop has its own time to either start it from seed or direct sow.
As a rule of thumb, start cool-season crops in late summer, which is around October. For warm-season crops start at the beginning of winter by the end of December.
3- The right size pots
Once you got your seed starting soil mix and gathered your seeds, it is time to choose the right containers.
Use seed starting cells for small seeds such as tomatoes, peppers, and brassicas. You may also use small disposable cups to save you some money. Make sure to pierce two to three drainage holes in the bottom.
Another frugal way is to use shallow containers with drainage holes. Fill them with soil, scatter the seeds, then cover them with more soil. This works best with very small seeds such as leeks, onions, snapdragon, and many more.
For bigger seeds like beans, peas, squash, and cucumbers, go for bigger and deeper pots. Yogurt containers, toilet paper rolls, or two-inch containers would work great. These plants have delicate root systems; give them enough space from the start to prevent stress.
4- Germination test
There is a cool trick to test the germination rate of your seeds. This technique speeds up the germination of some seeds like peppers. It also saves you the time of sowing them if they are not alive.
- Get a paper towel.
- Place some seeds on it.
- Put another towel on top.
- Spray them with water.
- Place them in a container or a zip bag.
- Make sure to pierce some holes for air circulation.
- Place them in a warm place, such as the top of a refrigerator.
- Check on them frequently until they sprout.
- Don’t forget to label your seeds.
Important note about germination test
To avoid damaging the seedling parts, transfer the sprouts to the pots as soon as you notice an opening on the seed coating.
5- Sow the seeds
- Premoisten the seed starting mix.
- Fill the containers well and pat the soil gently.
- For small seeds, insert three holes using a pencil head. No deeper than the sharpened part.
- Place a seed in each hole. Using three seeds is insurance.
- Gently cover the seeds with soil.
- Water with a gentle stream of water to prevent washing away the seeds. Using a water bottle with a drip nozzle is very practical. It provides more control over how much water to pour.
- For bigger seeds, one per container will be enough.
How to water seedlings?
The starting medium must be moist, not soggy, before putting the seed in, and it should stay that way till germination. However, avoid overwatering to prevent rot. It is best to allow the soil to dry out slightly between each watering.
Once the seedlings emerged, water from the bottom by filling the drainage tray. This method forces the roots to stretch and look for water, creating a stronger root system. Besides, it prevents damping-off and mold, which are the most common seedling problems.
Once the leaves are out, the plant needs adequate light for photosynthesis. A windowsill with six hours of direct sunlight is great. Tough, you will have to regularly turn the plant to ensure that the stem grows straight.
Most of the time a windowsill is not enough to have strong seedlings. The plants tend to stretch looking for sun, causing them to have a leggy skinny stem. Grow lights are the solution, if you really want to have nice transplants.
There are many commercial grow lights out there, but you can always make your own. Using a shop light on some sort of support system works well for beginners. Use lights that are between 5000-6500 kelvins for the best daylight color imitation. For the lumens, you want to choose the closest to 3000.
Before germination, the containers should be as close as possible to the light, one to two inches. This will prevent the stem from stretching to reach the light. Move the plants down (or the light-up) gradually, every time they touch the lightbulb.
Use a sun shield to increase brightness on the seedling.
How long does it take for the seeds to germinate?
The germination time varies from a species to another. Some seeds germinate in four days, others take twenty days. Check the seed packet for the exact time.
How to speed up seed germination?
There are some tricks you can apply to speed up the germination.
- Soak seeds for few hours to rehydrate them. This applies mainly to seeds that are somewhat big such as legumes.
- Use a heat mat to imitate nature and trick the seed.
- Some seeds require light to germinate, so do not bury them in soil. Check your seed packet.
- Some seeds need a chill time, so put them in the fridge or the freezer for a week. Check the seed packet to learn more.
- Scarification is scratching the hard coat of some seeds, such ad nasturtium, to imitate natural weathering, and help it soak moisture to germinate.
Seed starting problems
Spindly/ leggy seedlings
Sometimes the seedlings develop a long skinny stem that looks weak to support the growing plant. This is a common problem, and it is due to the lack of strong light. The plant’s trial to reach the light causes it to stretch.
In some cases, it can be remedied at planting time by burying the stem deep in the soil. However, this does not apply to all plants. Using good grow light from the get-go is the solution.
Damping-off is a fungal disease that damages seedlings at the stem base. It strangles the plant and kills it. The main cause of damping-off is excess moisture. You may prevent it by monitoring the watering schedule and allowing the soil to dry in between.
You may notice some purpling or yellowing of the seedlings’ leaves. That is most likely caused by stress. They are either need a new home or a more stable temperature.
It can also be caused by overfertilization. Keep an eye on the feeding regimen. Seedlings do not need a lot of food, just like babies do not eat like adults.
How to fertilize seedlings?
The seedlings will feed off their coating at the early stages. The first leaves are called Cotyledons and part of the embryo. Once the true leaves develop, it is time to feed them with low-concentration fertilizer.
The recommended fertilizer at this stage is Liquid seaweed. It promotes good growth and is not loaded with nutrients that could overwhelm the little plants.
Potting up the seedlings
In a few weeks, the plants are looking strong, and the roots start pocking through the bottom of the pot. It is time to move them to a bigger home for more room to grow.
Choose a pot that is slightly bigger than the original. You don’t want to push the plants too hard looking for water and nutrients, as they are still young and weak.
For the robust seeds, originally planted in big containers, they should go straight into the ground.
How to plant seedlings?
1- Hardening off
Hardening off is the process of acclimating the young plants to the outside elements. Usually, it takes seven days from start to finish.
- Bring the plant out in a dappled shade place and leave them for an hour or two, then bring them in.
- The next day, keep them out an hour longer with more sun.
- Keep increasing the time outside gradually until you reach a full day.
- On the last day, keep them out overnight with protection from nocturnal animals.
- Once they spent a full day and night out, they are ready to be put in the ground.
Each crop has its specific planting requirements, and it will hard to list all of them here. You may check each plant’s growing guide. The following, however, are general guidelines:
- Choose the right location with proper sun and soil needs.
- Dig a hole big enough for the root ball.
- Space the plants following the spacing chart.
- You may add a slow-release fertilizer to the planting hole. Mix it with the native soil.
- Flip the plant over the palm of your hand, then tap gently at the container base to release the root ball.
- Carefully, flip back and place the root ball in the hole.
- Backfill with soil patting firmly to eliminate air pockets.
- Water deeply.
- Place any needed support.
It may look like many steps to follow to start seeds, but once you get into it, it will prove itself to be easy. Take a deep breath and dive into the sea of seeds that are waiting for you.