If you're like me, March finds you dreaming of bountiful summer gardens. When my kids were younger we had huge veggie gardens filled with everything from leeks, to tomatillos, potatoes to kale. Peas, peppers, lettuce and tomatoes were our constant staples.
The Lad circa 1995.
In recent years the craziness of teen schedules & too much travel at the wrong time of year have left me with little time to start our beloved kitchen garden. I refuse to see another summer pass without that moment when I bite into the first sun warmed tomato freshly plucked from the vine. And so, today I started my seeds.
If you are planning on starting your garden from seed this year, here are some tricks and techniques I've learned over the years.
Seed Starting 101
- Seed starting "mini greenhouse" with cell packs, a bottom tray that has no holes, and a clear plastic lid.
- Seed starting mix (make sure this is not a heavy potting soil.)
- Milled Sphagnum Moss
- Spray bottle
- Plant markers
- Empty yogurt container
Some large seeds like peas & beans or early greens like spinach and lettuces may be seeded directly in the garden. This tutorial is for starting seeds indoors.
Start with clean seed trays. If you are reusing old trays, sterilize them in a mixture of water and bleach.
The type of soil you choose to start your seeds in is critical. Look for a light potting mix. You will find bags of "seed starting mix" in your local garden center. These are designed to be light enough for tender young roots to penetrate and they will hold just the right balance of air and moisture.
Fill the cell packs with the seed starting mix, pressing the mix gently into each cell. Place the cells packs into a container filled with about 1.5" of water. (I use my kitchen sink for this.) This allows the water to wick up from the bottom. Let the tray soak, you want the soil to feel like a damp sponge. I leave my cells in the sink throughout the seeding process in order to contain the mess.
Once your soil is moist enough, place the seeds on top of the mix in the cells. Depending on the size of the seeds, you will place anywhere from two to six seeds in each cell. Once they have germinated, you will thin them to one seedling per cell. It is rare to get 100% germination, so this insures that you will get at least one plant per cell.
In the photo above you see my favorite seed starting ingredient. Milled sphagnum moss has a naturally occurring anti-fungal agent that prevents the dreaded "damp off". Damp off is a fungus that rots young seedlings where the stem meets the soil, killing the plant.
Dust the tops of the tray with milled sphagnum. The size of your seeds will determine how thick to make your layer of sphagnum. A good rule of thumb for starting seeds is to cover them to a depth of 2-4 times the thickness of the seed.
Now that your seeds are so nicely tucked into their cells, give them a gentle shower with a spray bottle. You do not want to flood them here. Dumping water from a watering can will disrupt your seeds and most likely add too much water to the trays. The mix is already moist from the bottom watering you did earlier. The idea here is to moisten the milled sphagnum and water the seeds in so that they make good contact with the planing medium.
Carefully remove the cell packs from the sink and place them in the tray. Since standard plant markers won't fit under the clear plastic lid of your mini greenhouse, cut an empty yogurt container into strips. Use a waterproof marker to write the names of your plants on the strips. Place these mini markers in the appropriate cells and put the lid on your tray.
The lid helps speed germination by creating a warm moist environment, the optimal conditions for germination of most vegetable seeds. Until germination the amount of light is not critical. Place the tray away from direct sunlight to eliminate the risk of frying the seeds. Things can really heat up under that lid. Check daily for moisture and germination. Keep the planing medium as moist as a damp sponge - NOT SOGGY.
Once your seeds have germinated remove the lid and place them in a sunny window. Your seedlings need a lot of light at this point. You will know if your seedlings are not getting enough light if they become tall and thin (known as leggy). Short fat seedlings are healthy seedlings.
I'll try to do another tutorial on the care of your seedlings once mine germinate.