You can grow healthy crops by setting up an indoor “seed-starting station”
Probably you have already browsed the gardening catalogs and now have a pile of seed packets.
But I do not see a reason to wait for the weather outdoors to get warmer when you can jumpstart with your garden by starting seeds indoors.
Read this step-by-step guide to set up a seed-starting station and successfully grow transplants that will “outdo” the local nursery.
Step 1. Sort out fresh seeds only
Group your new seeds by how long they will need to start like this: 12 weeks before the last-frost date, 6 weeks before…, and so on. Sometimes you don’t know the age of your seeds, so you should do a quick germination test:
– Soak a piece of paper towel or coffee filter in water
– Place 10 to 15 seeds in a line on the paper
– Spray them with water and then fold the paper over and place in a loosely closed plastic baggie.
– Check on the seeds every few days until no new seeds are germinating. Finally, the percentage of seeds that germinated from your original count is your estimated germination rate.
Step 2. Mix healthy potting soil
For best germination outcome and early root growth, use a soil rich in nutrients and well-balanced in texture because only in such way it will hold just the right amount of moisture. Many growers choose an organic bagged blend or mix their own potting soil from materials like vermiculite, coir and compost.
“In a pinch, garden soil can be used as an ingredient for homemade potting mix,” says Milan Karcic, operator of Peace, Love and Freedom Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. “It should be sterilized by putting no more than a 1 inch layer on a baking tray in the oven for 25 minutes at 200 degrees.”
Sterilized potting soil ensures that mold and bacteria will not infect your seedlings at the very start.
Step 3. Choose your seed tray
Growers can select from a variety seed trays suited to a number of purposes. If room is no issue, you can use 3- to 4-inch pots, but to maximize limited space, use plastic plug trays instead and later transplant the seedlings into pots. Some gardeners make blocks of compressed soil with no pot for easy transplanting.
Yet, another alternative are compostable peat pots or newspaper-wrapped soil blocks for a bit more stability.
No matter what soil container you choose, you need a sturdy bottom tray to hold the seedlings. Plastic trays can be reused year by year, but need to be washed thoroughly to prevent cross contamination.
Step 4. Select your light source
You already know that seedlings grow best with consistent exposure to sunlight. For urban farmers living in the northern US, or those without sufficient indoor lighting, natural light during typical seed starting time is not foreseeable. In such case, seedlings will grow strongest under artificial light placed 4 to 6 inches above the top of the soil. Many growers prefer the efficiency and lumen output of a four-bulb t-5 lighting unit.
Step 5. Set up your space
Whether or not you use lights to grow your seedlings, set them in an undisturbed space that maintains an even temperature. The ideal place should include a table or rack, access to water and an adjustable hanging system for lights. Dedicated gardeners prefer a basement or closet to keep pets and young children away from the trays.
Step 6. Seed your trays
Once your setup is ready, it’s time for the “real action.” Lay out your washed trays or pots and fill them with soil, tapping the trays on a table so the soil settles well. Avoid compressing too much because delicate roots might not be able to break through. Dampen the soil gently with a sprayer nozzle on a hose, then seed according to your tested germination rate: If you’re using new seed, or your tested germination rate was near 100%, plant one seed per plug or pot. If not, use 2 or 3 seeds. Water the trays thoroughly and place them in your growing area.
Step 7. Water sensibly
Do not attend your trays till you see the tips of the germinating seeds, then only water when the soil is dry to the touch.
“Little plants are tough—or at least you want them to be tough!” says Erin Harvey of The Kale Yard, based in Ohio. “Don’t water too often. It’s important that seedlings get a good ‘wet/dry swing’ to prevent greenhouse diseases.”
She warns gardeners to be especially cautious of watering at night. Many growers prefer bottom watering, i.e., filling the bottom tray with water so that the soil and roots percolate the water up to the surface to avoid wet leaves or damaging tiny stems.
Step 8. Include some office work: Take notes
The best farmers keep timely notes about every part of the growing process, so they can make slight improvements from year to year. Mr. Karcic recommends keeping track of your seeds traits, the conditions they grew in, the germination rate, and how many generations you have planted with the same seed.
You may also record the size plug trays you used, days to germination, and notes about anything unusual, like inconsistent germination.
Step 9. Thin seedlings
As your seedlings grow, remove all but the strongest seedlings. “I know it’s hard to do, but keep just one plant per cell or soil block or pot,” Harvey says. “Snip rather than pull, so you do not disturb the tiny roots. Starting out green life with less competition will give you bigger, stronger plants sooner that will thrive later on.”
Step 10. Now it is time to transplant
When you are using small peat pots or cell trays, you will need to transplant when the seedlings have fully rooted out. It means you can see roots coming out of the bottom. This usually happens after a month or so. Farmers often time their seed starting so that transplanting can happen in later spring, when sunny hours are much longer and transplants can be moved outside to a hoop house (or cold frame).
The good thing is that the transplant process is similar to seed-starting. Fill a larger clean pot with an enriched potting soil. Gently make a hole in the soil and transplant the cell or soil block into the center of the pot, equal to the height of the soil surface. Gently tamp the soil. Water abundantly, place in a bottom tray, and position under lights, on a warm windowsill, or in a hoop house or cold frame.
To be kept in mind:
Seedlings can undergo transplant shock if they are not gently exposed to the weather before being planted outside, so they will need to be hardened off. When your seedlings are fully rooted in their transplanted pots and the weather is warm, carry your trays outside during the warmest time of day for a few hours at a time. Choose a slightly shaded and protected spot so that intense sun, rain or wind does not shock the plants. Moderately increase the outdoor exposure over a week or two.
At this point, your seedlings are finally ready to be transplanted into their homes in the ground.
A word for freshmen gardeners:
Gardening has always been one of America’s favorite pastimes. In fact, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. According to 2012 research, close to half of Americans gardened within the past year. Avid gardeners total at more than 164 million enthusiasts in the US!
Join this multitude ASAP since keeping new plants from tiny seeds to fully-grown seedlings is one of the greatest joys a gardener can feel. Even if the above-listed steps may seem numerous and hard-to-follow, don’t give up.
You will be rewarded with strong and healthy plants that will do exceptionally well because they will be under your care from the kickoff to the finish.