In part 2 of the series “Everything You Need to Know About Seeds – Part 1“, we will discuss how to start seeds in your garden or in starter trays.
How to Start Seeds
Some basic items that you will need to start your garden from seed are containers such as purchased pots, seed flat trays, peat pots, egg cartons or yogurt cups (eat the yogurt first of course). You can use just about anything that has good drainage and can hold soil as a container for starting your seeds. You should also use a good quality, soil-less mix, whether you mix this yourself or purchase it from the home goods store is up to you. You should also invest in some good quality labels (I use Popsicle sticks from a craft store) because without a label, you will easily forget what was planted. Trust me. I would also recommend some clear plastic bags or plastic covers to help hold in moisture and heat until the plants pop up through the soil. The obvious additional items needed would be water and a light source (the sun is great if you have a bright window or grow lights if you don’t). Finally, you will need some seeds.
If you plan on making your own soil-less potting mix, there are a few things that you need to know about it’s structure and importance. With soil from your garden, you are not sure what is in the soil that could harm your newborn plants. Since there are times when we sow seeds directly in our garden, what’s the harm in using garden soil? In my case, I prefer to have a sterile environment for my plants so they all have the same experience when germinating in a soil-less mix. Soil from the garden is like going to the movies and expecting everyone to have the same experience.
I usually purchase my soil-less mix from the home improvement store because I just find it easier than mixing it myself. If you have the time and want to make your own mix, you will need some specific materials in the correct ratios to make it work. You need a plastic bin, wheelbarrow, or garbage can of sufficient size to hold the materials. I find it easier to make smaller batches in a plastic bin that has a lid because it is much easier to incorporate the materials when I can pick it up and spin it around.
I found some good information on the internet that explains each of the specific materials needed for your own soil-less potting mix.
- Bark: Bark is added to improve drainage and air space within the mix. This means it will also decrease the water retention slightly. Bark mixes are better for use with mature plants that need to dry between waterings than for starting seeds.
- Coir: Coir is a coconut fiber by-product and works similar to peat in providing good drainage while also retaining water. It’s often used as a substitute in areas where peat is hard to come by.
- Perlite: Perlite is that stuff that looks like pebbly Styrofoam. It’s a volcanic mineral, although it does not affect the nutrient quality or the pH of the mix. It does add in drainage and in air and water retention, that magical balance. In fact, it is sometimes used in outdoor gardens to prevent sandy soil from leaching nutrients.
- Vermiculite: Vermiculite is those silvery-gray flecks you see in potting soil. It’s a mica-type material that is heated up and expanded, to increase its water holding capacity. The particles soak up water and nutrients and hold them in the mix until the plants are ready to access them. Perlite is also good as a soil covering for seeds that need to remain consistently moist to germinate. *** You may see vermiculite for sale at home improvement stores, for use in insulation or plaster. This grade vermiculite is not really suitable for potting mixes since it does not absorb water easily.
Simply fill whatever containers you plan on using about 2/3 full with the dampened soil-less mix. Tamp the dirt down evenly (but not too firmly) before adding the seeds. Be sure to read the planting instructions and to cover the seeds with the correct amount of soil. Be sure to plant at least 3-4 seeds per pot to ensure at least one germinates (you will probably have them all germinate if they are quality seeds) but if more germinate, you can thin them later on to the strongest plant. Place the pot or tray into a plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap in order to hold in the moisture and heat. Most plants germinate between 65-70 degrees F. Once the plants pop through the soil, be sure to remove the plastic bag or plastic wrap and move them into an area with indirect light. Keep the plants moist until you are ready to plant them in the garden.
If you have crazy weather in the Spring, you may have to harden your plants off for a week or two before planting in the garden. You can use a cold-frame or simply move them out during the day in a protected area so the plants get used to the different temperatures to prevent shock to the plants. I have always been told to plant transplants on an overcast day and if I follow this rule, I rarely lose a plant.
Staggered Plantings Ensures a Long Season
I like to space out my plantings because this allows me to have a longer growing and harvest season. Since I live in Georgia, we typically have a much longer growing season than many in the northern states but this doesn’t mean you can’t stagger your plants too. A good rule of thumb is to plant the same crop every 2-4 weeks or when your first batch of plants have put on their first true leaves.
I also like to grow different types of plants together, also known as companion planting, in order to help with pest control or to help loosen the soil for later harvest vegetables such as carrots. I like to sow radishes and carrots together in the same row because the radishes grow much faster than the carrots and as I harvest the radishes, the space they leave loosens the soil around the carrots which allows oxygen and water to get down to the carrots. I plan on growing some leeks this year so I will also plant some carrots next to them because I have read that leeks or spring onions help deter the carrot fly. This is something that I will watch closely since I have had problems with carrot flies in the past.
I hope I have provided some useful information about how to start your seeds. Although there are many methods for starting and caring for your seedlings, there is just way too much information available to cover it all here. If you have any questions or want to give other readers some of your tricks or tips for successful seed starting, please post a comment in the comment section below.