Sowing Seeds for Garden Success

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In my neck of the woods, February and March are prime garden readiness months. Fruit trees are pruned, berries are trimmed of dead canes and tied to trellises or fencing, raised beds are restocked with compost or built brand new. But, the most fun of this time of year is starting seeds. We mark the day on our calendars and when it arrives the task begins like the start of an Olympic race.

There’s truly nothing better than plunging your hands deep into freshly dug soil, warmed by the spring sun and planting homegrown seedlings started way back in winter, when spring was just a hope and a dream. And, the money you save over buying already started veggies and the vibrant taste of homegrown food ain’t bad either.

This is also the time when garden centers and hardware stores stock a plethora of seed starting paraphernalia: peat pots, soil pellets, plastic pots, covered mini-greenhouses, you name it, if it can start a seed, some store in your area will carry it.

But, do you really need all this fancy commercial stuff to start the seeds you want to plant in your garden. The answer is no! Seeds are not divas. They don’t require 5-star accommodations to germinate and thrive. What they do require is the right kind of starter/growing medium, the right amount of moisture, warm temperatures and room to produce a strong healthy root system.

Planting containers can be as simple as recycled yoghurt, sour cream or cottage cheese containers, or the bottom of milk cartons with holes punched in the bottom for drainage. An oddball collection of 2, 3 or 4-inch clay and plastic pots, or left over pony packs and planting trays will also serve well as starter pots. The main point is to give the seeds you’re planting a fighting chance at thriving.

I do however, like to use peat pots for veggies that don’t like their roots disturbed too much during transplanting, mainly because roots can grow through them as the pot decays in the soil. And, peat pellets, those little rock hard soil disks that expand when soaked in water, are great for tiny herb seeds that can get lost or wash away in larger containers. But, seeds started in peat pellets need to be transplanted into larger pots as soon as they emerge from the soil.

Newspaper pots are surprisingly strong if you don’t handle them too much and are an inexpensive way to start a variety of seeds. You can buy a newspaper pot press, but that costs money, about $20. You can use a piece of round dowel or other round object that is about an 1-1/2 to 2-inches in diameter and make your own for nothing. Toilet paper or paper towel rolls can also be used if you cut them to the right length, and cut and fold one end to hold in the soil.

Of all the ways I’ve started seeds over the years, 4-inch pots, either plastic or clay, are my favorite. Friends and family save them for me when they buy plants from the nursery. And, I’ve even been known to ask a commercial gardener or two when I see them planting seasonal color around office buildings or shopping malls. The pots are big enough to keep most seedlings in until they are transplant size and ready to go out into the garden. They can hold any size seeds, from small tomato seeds to large pumpkin and squash.

When I’ve finished with them, I rinse them out in a light bleach solution (2 tbsp to 5 gallons of water), to kill any bacteria, and store them away until next season.

If you plan on starting your own seeds this season try these tips for success and watch your garden flourish this year.

  • Use a coarse planting mix instead of potting soil; it holds too much moisture which can rot seeds before they geminate. To mix your own: use equal parts potting soil or very well composted compost, peat moss, and perlite, with a small amount of vermiculite. To mix it easily, fill a 5-gallon bucket about ¾ full and snap on the lid then roll it around a while so ingredients can blend thoroughly.
  • Use heat mats, or a heating pad to warm the soil faster. Warm soil mimics the onset of spring and encourages seeds to germinate. When I plant my seeds, I place the containers on a metal tray then set the tray on the heating pad. The heat conducts easily and no moisture can harm the heating pad.
  • When seeds emerge from the soil, give them plenty of light so they don’t get too leggy (long, weak stems). If this happens, gently run your hand over the tops of the seedlings a few times a day or place a fan, on low, several feet away and let it blow across the seedlings. The motion makes the stems strong. A south facing window works great, or you can use grow lights.
  • If weather permits, put seedling outside to get some direct sun. Keep extending the length of time so they become acclimated to outdoor weather. This will help when you plant them out in the garden. I set mine under a tree to give seedlings dappled light. Cold frames also work great.
  • Protect seedlings from the cold by bringing them in at night or covering them with row cloth. If your winters are not too severe, a simple greenhouse built over a raised bed will work fine. Check out our In The Garden section.
  • Keep an eye out for creepy crawlies that will go after your tender seedlings. If you see them pick them off by hand or put your seedlings out of their way.

Oh – one last thing…don’t forget to label your pots, folks! There’s nothing more frustrating than getting ready to plant your garden and not knowing what each pot contains.

One Response to “Sowing Seeds for Garden Success”

  1. Diana says:

    Starting seeds is one of my favorite tasks. Thanks for reviewing the options and encouraging others to give it a try.

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