Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How To Start Seeds, Part 1

Every gardening site has a section on Starting Seeds. I'm tempted to point to one of them--here's a good primer--and say good night.

I don't think that's enough.

I've come to believe it's not so much that people don't have the information, but are convinced that it's too difficult. With that in mind, a pep talk:

° Seeds are cheap

° The interesting plants are usually only available as seeds

° You did it in the First Grade

So if at some point this all seems a little too complicated, keep that last sentence in mind: You were able to pull it off when you were six years old.


Our little group got together a couple of weeks ago and came up with a list of plants we'd like to grow. We added to our leftover and saved seeds and bought heirloom seeds from Fedco, Victory Seed Co, Seed Savers, Seeds From Italy, Wild Garden Seed, Johnny's Seeds, and Reimer Seeds.

Naturally, the catalogs only sell the Best Prize-Winning Heirloom Vegetables available. With so many options to choose from, GrowingTaste.com's List of Desirable Vegetables was helpful in deciding which bits of advertising to believe.

It's confounding that in this day and age, in which there is a myriad of magazines discussing the qualities and tastes of comestibles from wines to commercial flours, we home-garden vegetable growers have no central source of plausibly reliable taste reports from which to compare the various varieties of each of the many vegetables we grow annually. A very few--tomatoes most notably--excite enough interest that there are extensive discussions available about varieties, but what's the best-tasting celeriac? Or, for that matter, broccoli?

We have scoured the internet, including both the web and usenet, looking for information; we have also, of course, pored over numerous seedsmen's catalogues, for what that's worth. (It is amazing how there can be sixteen varieties of a vegetable, each and every one of which is absolutely, positively the best variety there is.) Because of such bias, we have, in our evaluations of the literature, given far and away the most weight to various scientific studies, conducted mainly by universities and State agencies, because they have nothing to sell and no axes to grind.


With your seeds picked out, it's a relatively simple process to figure out when you need to start. Everything is based on your average last frost date--here in Chicago that's May 15th.


Why Start Seeds

Vegetables grown in areas with short growing seasons or ones that take too long to mature need to be started indoors in order to get a good head start before moving outside, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Planting time for vegetable seeds started indoors depends on when the seedling needs to be transplanted in the garden," said Maurice Ogutu. "This time may vary from four to 14 weeks."

For example, if the indoor start is done in relation to the last frost, the times are as follow:

10 weeks--broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and head lettuce;

Seven weeks--tomato, eggplant, and pepper; and

Four weeks--cucumber, muskmelon, squash, and watermelon.

"Starting vegetable seeds indoors ensures that high percent germination is achieved through provision of optimal conditions for seed germination," he said. "Some vegetable seeds are very expensive particularly hybrid varieties, so starting them indoors ensures that seed loss due to rodents or poor weather is minimal.

"Vegetables established from transplants tend to mature much earlier than direct-seeded ones."


Things get a little complicated when you have a garden full of plants with different starting dates. Having a calendar is helpful. By entering your average last frost date, this link generates a custom planting calendar. If you're in Chicago, Zone 5b, this calendar is a good one.

To add another twist to all this, you can plant outside sooner if you use cold frames and hoop houses. My co-blogger, H2, put a greenhouse , purchased as a kit from Costco, on her roof.

So now you've got the schedule figured out.


Next is picking up some supplies. You can buy seed starting kits--a reusable Deeluxe model like this costs $20 and starts 72 seedlings--or you can cobble something together for a little less money and get the same results.

The University of Illinois at Chicago's Ag Extension web site helps again:
"Get materials such as pots, trays, plastic flats, peat pots, and potting mix for starting the seeds ready or buy seed starter kits from local garden centers or catalogues," he said. "Containers or trays for starting seeds need to have drainage holes on the bottom.

"When starting vegetable seeds in a tray or pot, cover the holes on the trays with peat moss before filling with potting mix or soil. A good potting mix or soil for starting vegetable seeds needs to be light, loose, disease-free, insect-free, weed-seed-free, have good water-holding capacity, and well-drained."

Fill trays, flats, and pots with potting mix or starting media and level gently. Place the filled-up tray, flat, or pot on a pan of water overnight so that water can soak into the potting mix from the bottom. If trays are used, make shallow rows about one to two inches apart when starting different kinds or varieties of vegetables and label each row after seeding. Broadcast when starting one type of vegetable in a seed tray.

"Plant the seeds uniformly by pressing them gently into the starting media according to the planting depth recommended on the seed packet," he said. "Cover the container with plastic film or a piece of window glass to retain the moisture until the seeds germinate.

The only thing I'd add to that is to suggest that you use coir instead of peat moss. Sold at pet shops as bedding for hamsters and gerbils, or online at Rolanka, it's roughly the same price as peat, but there's a virtually unlimited supply of it.

I make my own potting mix - 70% (by volume) reconstituted coir, 30% perlite, mixed with a little Espoma 5-3-3 All-Purpose fertilizer. This is the same formula for what I put in all my SIPs, too.


Light and Heat.


For the past 2 years I've started roughly 100 seedlings under cheap fluorescent shop lights in my utility closet. The boiler and hot water heater keep the temperature between 70 and 75, and I use a timer to keep the lights on for 15 hours a day.



Not pretty, but I'll grow about 200 seedlings in these two areas this year.



More evidence that you don't need specialized equipment to do this.






Tiny Farm Blog has a nice Q&A forum on seed starting under lights.

Richmond Food Secure has a good post on building a seedling rack.


This is getting long, so I'll go over the rest in part 2.

[5.13.09 - Until I get around to an official Part 2, here are some posts that follow up on Part 1:

2009 Roof Farm Seed Selection - A Preview 2.4.09
Heirloom Seedlings For Sale (with this seasons planting list) - 3.15.09
March 22nd Seedling Update
Seed Starting Update - 3.29.09
Heirloom Seedling Update - 5.12.09]

8 comments:

GardenLover said...

Buzzy Seeds sells grow kits that all start from seeds. They are easy to use for new gardeners and kids. Not sure what all they have, but I've bought their herb kits and they do great. The kits come with seeds, soil, a pot and instructions. So it's all in one and not expensive at all! They have a website, too. It's www.buzzyseeds.com.

Greenscaper said...

Thanks Bruce! Your post is very timely. I just got packets of 4 different heirloom tomatoes and 2 bell peppers. This will be my first experience at seed starting.

Bruce said...

Hi Bob,

Nice to hear from you. And thanks for the comment (You too , GL).

I had a question for you--What was it that made you decide to start plants from seeds for the first time? I never did because I (wrongly) thought there were an endless number of special "tricks" that I'd need to remember to be even modestly successful.

Good luck with the plants!

mrbrownthumb said...

I haven't stopped by Corrente since the primary wars. Thanks for the reminder.

DannyStaple said...

Hi there, I cobbled together a seed starter myself. It really is simple to do, and gives them a good start. Now I need to write about the system I plant them out into - still indoors as I live in a flat.

Bruce said...

Very nice primer Danny.

If I understand you correctly, you're going to grow your tomatoes to maturity inside. Do you need to provide artificial light? If so, what kind of bulbs do you use?

DannyStaple said...

I actually grew last years with only natural light - I have a very well lit balcony area where I grow my plants. Never used any artificial lights - sounds like quite an expensive thing. I will be documenting my growing arrangement properly sometime soon.

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