Seed Starting Basics
A common scene in early May around here are long lines at our local nurseries as the back yard gardeners head out to get their plants. Tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, even broccoli…these are the plants that many purchase because (in our area of the world) you cannot direct sow most seeds into the ground. This is because most of the plants we enjoy require a longer growing season than what we have locally. I admit, we used to buy all of my warm season plants at my favorite local nursery, and we still grab a few every summer. However, a few things changed for us that made us begin starting our warm weather veggies from seed.
- We want what we can’t have. We want a bigger variety, and we want the heirloom, organic vegetables that can be difficult to find at a nursery.
- We work hard for our money so we spend it wisely. For the cost of 1 conventionally grown plant (around $3.00), you could plant up to 35 organic, heirloom plants.
So if it’s more cost effective and you can get more of what you want, why doesn’t everyone do start their own seeds? I guess seed starting can seem intimidating, especially the first year. If you do a quick google search you’ll likely be overwhelmed by products, blog posts and more opinions about what is best practice than there are cultivars to plant. And a bad planting experience can be discouraging, but, like most things we do, a basic understanding of the science involved along with a simple plan can help to ensure a successful crop.
Birds do it, bees do it – why can’t we do it?
Well, in nature, this stuff happens, well, naturally. And that’s really the beginning of all of our problems when it comes to gardening. What we’re doing isn’t completely natural. A plant that is growing on its own in nature is growing in the soil and conditions that are right for it to grow. Otherwise it wouldn’t grow. But what we’re trying to do is take a seed from a plant that grew far away from us and make it grow where we want it to grow. Therein lies the biggest problem – we have to create the right conditions to make the plant feel at home. Literally. And seeds are smart – they know when they’re in the right spot to grow, otherwise we’d have an entirely different experience with eating trail mix.
Here in the Midwest, many of the plants that we plant are accustomed to a different set of growing conditions. One of those conditions has to do with how long it takes the plant to go from seed to vegetable. The reality for us is that we just don’t have enough warm, frost free days in our year to support this process for many of the foods we eat. So, we have to start our seeds a few weeks early.
The good news is that if you really think about what happens to make seeds grow, creating the right conditions for your seeds is simple. Its best to start your seeds using the basic three part sets – water tight base tray, seed cell insert and humidity dome. Sounds expensive, but those three things cost anywhere from a few dollars at the local big box store to $50 or more from a specialty shop. Guess which one we bought.
Here are the 5 basic things a seed needs in order to grow:
- Soil – One really cool thing about seeds is that they contain enough food (called endosperm) to get started. But, this is really just enough to get the roots out into the wonderful soil that you’ve provided as a part of the right growing conditions for your plants. You can buy starter soil already mixed or, if you’re planting lots of seeds, you can mix your own (peat, compost and vermiculite). The right soil mix will retain air and moisture, and help prevent common soil born pathogens from hurting the seeds.
- Heat – Until the seeds sprout, it’s a good idea to give your seeds a little boost of heat. You can purchase a warming pad for under your seed tray. But a MONEY SAVING TIP is that you can also use those Christmas lights you have stored away (or if your like our neighbor, take them down from your house and trees). Simply spread the lights out beneath your seed tray to provide a nice even amount of heat beneath.
- Light – your chances of successfully starting seeds in your home without grow lights is fairly small. They’ll typically sprout, grown spindly, then keel over and die. (I know because I tried year after year). However, an inexpensive full spectrum bulb will provide your plants with the necessary light to grow. Once your plants poke up above the soil, you’ll simply keep the light at a consistent 3-4 inches above your plants. This means you’ll want to have a way to raise the light up as your plants grow.
- Water – Seedlings are delicate little things. It is important to water them from the bottom. This is one of the reasons seed trays come in two parts. The bottom piece should always have some standing water in it that the seed trays are immersed in. The seedlings will wick up the water as needed and the soil will help to retain moisture as well.
- Gradual Transition – Your seeds have been enjoying a warm, cushy, comfortable life in your care. Conditions are different outside. The sun provides a much more intense light and the temperature varies considerably. If you simply expose your plants immediately into full days and nights outside they will stunt and possibly die. No one wants to see that! You’ve worked hard, so take your time and ease them into their new outdoor environment. The process of easing them in is called “hardening off”. There are a few ways to do it, including placing them in a warm frame, putting them out each day for a little longer until you plant, or transferring them to a plastic covered spot in the garden before moving them to their final destination. Whatever fits your life best is the best option for you, but make sure you give your plants a transition time.
The final thing to consider is when to start your seeds. This will vary depending on your location and what seeds you are planting. At our place we start most of our seeds in February or March. You’ll want to consider what zone you are in to determine your frost free date, then count back based on the seed instructions. In Indiana, Purdue University Extension Educators put together a TON of information for growing just about anything. Below are two links that will help Hoosiers determine when to start planting:
- This one from the Purdue Extension gives a more in depth overview of seed starting and some rough dates for starting in the various zones in Indiana.
- This one is a vegetable planting guide for the state also from the Purdue Extension.
- This is a great seed starting and planting calendar from the Farmer’s Almanac. I have it linked for Indianapolis area/zone, but you can change that based on where you live.
- Like us on Facebook – If you haven’t already, remember to like is on Facebook. Facebook is the best place to stay up to date on what’s happening here at Wood Frog Farms. We love to answer questions and hear more of your thoughts and ideas. And, we always love to hear about what seeds you’ll be planting this year. We’re excited that we are adding many more heirloom varieties this year as we start to move into seed saving!