Seed Starting Basics

Follow these simple seed starting tips to get a head start on gardening season.

| June 2018

  • seed starting
    Don't start too many seeds at once, keep it simple. Once you've mastered a few basics, expand your repertoire.
    Photo by Shaye Elliot
  • seed starting
    Potting soil makes it easy for your seedlings to take root and grow without any interference.
    Photo by Shaye Elliot
  • seed starting
    Starting seeds indoors brings with it the hope of all that's to come in the summer harvest.
    Photo by Shaye Elliot
  • cover
    “Welcome to the Farm” by Shaye Elliot is a comprehensive guide for all readers wanting to grow their own food and live a homestead life from their backyard.
    Cover courtesy Lyons Press

  • seed starting
  • seed starting
  • seed starting
  • cover

In Welcome to the Farm: How-to Wisdom from The Elliott Homestead, Shaye Elliot teaches readers how they can live a homestead lifestyle without a farm. In this fully illustrated how-to, Elliot shows readers how to harvest their own vegetables, milk a dairy cow, can jams and jellies, and more! The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, "The Home Garden."

Why start seeds? Great question, my friend. One would start seeds if one needed to get a jump-start on the gardening season. Up here in the north, we need to start a few crops indoors if we ever hope to get a harvest before the first frost. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and other long-season vegetables require more frost-free days than we have. So starting them indoors allows us to grow them for a while inside, move them outside to the garden beds when it's safe, and harvest the bounty before the frost arrives in the fall.

There are other benefits to starting seeds yourself, not the least of which is control over what you grow. Unlike the nurseries and home — improvement stores that carry only a few dozen varieties, there are (literally!) limitless options of seeds available to the home gardener. This means you have freedom to choose exactly the variety you'd like. On top of increased growing options, the cost of seeds is significantly lower than buying starts.

Tips for Seed Starting

Don't start too many. Often, it's easy for us gardeners to get overzealous (points to self) and start too many seeds from too many different varieties. Keep it simple. Once you've mastered a few basics, expand your repertoire.



Water from the ground up. Seedlings are extremely sensitive and watering them from overhead with a watering can may cause disruption in the airy potting soil and can also cause the soil to crust over a bit. Instead, plant the seeds in pots with drainage holes in the bottom and place the pots in a tray that can hold water. This way, the soil and seedlings can absorb water from below as they need it, maintaining a consistent moisture level and preventing any damage to the soil aeration or seedling.

Follow package directions. Often the seed packet will tell you exactly when to start your seeds. These instructions are there for a reason. If started too soon, some seeds (such as cucumbers) will suffer. I know rules are meant to be broken... but try to control yourself a wee bit.

Seeds require very little from us humans. Warmth, light, and a bit of soil is all they ask of us.

Light

When you start your seeds indoors, it's essential to give them access to light. In the winter or early spring, this means (at the very least) putting them directly under a southern-exposure window for optimized daylight. Because the days are still short this time of year, I've found it extremely beneficial to provide the seedlings with supplemental light as well. If the seeds receive too few hours of daylight, they'll struggle toward the light, resulting in leggy seedlings with weak stems. To grow strong, vibrant seedlings, I provide mine with artificial light until the daylight and sun exposure increases. I use a homemade setup of shop lights and sunlight-spectrum bulbs to supplement my seedlings. Ideally, the lights sit only 2 to 3 inches above the seedlings. As the seedlings grow, lift the lights up higher.

Heat

Seedlings also require warmer temperatures to let them know it's safe to germinate. All seeds germinate at varying temperatures, but for the most part, room temperature (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit) will be enough to encourage them to grow. If you're keeping your seedlings in a cold basement or barn, additional heat may be beneficial. I very rarely supplement my seedlings with additional heat, with the exception of peppers and eggplants (they like it hot so I utilize a seed-starting mat under the pots to make it a bit warmer).

Seed-Starting Mix

I won't admit that I've learned this lesson the hard way (and I definitely won't admit I've learned it at least two or three times) but for the sake of your seedlings, do not start your seeds in garden soil! Garden soil is alive. It's a teeny tiny little ecosystem that can actually put strain on your seedlings and affect their health and growth. Instead, grab a bag of organic seed-starting mix, which is gently moistened, light in texture, and free of contaminates. Potting soil makes it easy for your seedlings to take root and grow without any interference.

Water

Seedlings do best with consistent moisture. This means you can't drown them one day and then not water for a few days. Be consistent! Keeping the seedlings in a very shallow tray of water will keep you from having to stress about soil moisture, as the soil will naturally draw up exactly as much as it needs. Remove the containers from the tray once the've been thoroughly moistened. Your seedlings will not grow without water. Just in case you were wondering.

My Favorite Seed Companies

I've chosen to spend my gardening dollars supporting companies that have a passion for growing and preserving organic, heirloom, and open-pollinated varieties.

  • Seed Savers Exchange
  • Sustainable Seed Co.
  • Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds
  • Johnny's Selected Seeds
  • Seeds of Change
  • Territorial Seeds

Starting seeds indoors brings with it the hope of all that's to come in the summer harvest. Give 'em soil, water, and light. Magic will do the rest.

Eggplants and peppers require a lot of time to produce fruit. For those of us in shorter growing seasons, starting indoors is a must if we're to get any fruit at all.



A high-quality seed-starting mix will help to retain moisture and allow for easy root growth.

Basic Seed-Starting Guide

Equipment:

  • Seed-starting mix
  • Containers with drainage holes
  • Trays
  • Grow lights
  • Seeds

Method:

  1. Write up a seed schedule so you know when to start which seeds.
  2. Clean your containers with hot, soapy water to avoid any contamination.
  3. Fill your containers with seed-starting mix. Using your fingertip or a pencil, create holes in the mix for the seeds. Plant according to package directions and then gently brush the soil back over the hole to fill it.
  4. Place the containers in a shallow tray of water.
  5. Label containers with the type of seed and date planted. Don't think you'll remember what and when you planted. You won't.
  6. Cover the containers with clear plastic, if desired, to help maintain a moist and warm environment. You can remove the plastic once the seeds have germinated.
  7. Place the containers 2 to 3 inches below a grow light, leaving the light on 14 to 16 hours per day. Adjust the light as necessary to always maintain a 2- to 3-inch gap between the bulbs and the plants.
  8. After the plants have developed their first true leaves, you're safe to give them their first fertilizer treatment. I like to use compost tea from my worms, diluted to one-quarter strength with water. Fish emulsion is another option (though a slightly stinkier one).
  9. As the plants grow, you may need to transplant them to larger containers. Take caution to always handle the plant by its leaves and not by its fragile stem!
  10. Before moving out to the garden, make sure to harden off the seedlings. This process involves moving the plants outside on warm, non-windy days for a few hours and then moving them back in at night when temperatures drop. Do this for a few days, lengthening their time outside each day, so the plants can harden off and grow a bit tougher. Life in the garden ain't easy, baby.

More from Welcome to the Farm:

Excerpted with permission from Welcome to the Farm, by Shaye Elliot. Published by Lyons Press, © 2017.






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