Seed Starting 101
Gardening is commonly considered a springtime activity. However, the savvy gardener knows that the best trick is to start gardening in winter. That's right; you can begin growing your plants now! Of course, if you are in a cold, snowy climate, the seeds can't go outside yet. Still, the ideal time to start planting seeds is before they can go outdoors. If you time things carefully, gardening can be a year-round project. Isn't that wonderful?
The Importance of Starting Seeds The majority of vegetable seeds can be started indoors before they are transplanted outdoors. There are many benefits to this practice:
· Longer-season plants can be grown, possibly ones that previously seemed infeasible to grow in your climate.
· Overall, yields increase as more plants are propagated. So you get icreased plant variety.
· Improved plant survival, as seedlings are already vigorous before being exposed to outdoor weather conditions.
The seed packet always lists a days to maturity designation. This number indicates how long it takes for a seed to become a mature plant and produce fruit. The time is different for every variety of vegetable. Some are quick to mature while others take quite a long time. In cooler climates, some vegetable varieties may seem impractical to grow because there is not enough time in the outdoor season to accommodate the required days to maturity. Starting the seeds indoors gives them a jump-start on the growing season. Plants, like lettuce, peas, and radishes, can be planted multiple times throughout the growing season. Starting the first round inside not only extends the overall growing season, it also means you can begin harvesting long before you would if you just planted outdoors. Seedlings are fragile and require frequent monitoring and care. Seeds planted outdoors have to battle the elements to survive. They can get washed away from too much rain, dry out from not enough rain or water, or get picked off and eaten by birds and other hungry creatures. Seeds started indoors have the benefit of a controlled environment to grow strong. Then, when they are ready, they can be moved outdoors. Which Seeds Do I Start and When? The timing varies depending on where you live. While there is not a precise method to determine the best starting date, there are luckily some great resources online. To find this information for your specific area, enter your zip code into this handy tool from Dave's Garden.
It will show you first frost, last frost, and days in the growing season based on previous years' weather data. To determine the best time to plant vegetable types, consult this comprehensive chart from the University of New Hampshire.
On the planting chart, you'll see that vegetables like peppers and eggplant take eight to ten weeks to become healthy seedlings while melons and zucchini take four to six weeks. Take some time before you start planting anything to draw up a calendar and plan out your seed starts. Use the planting chart guide and the days to maturity information for the individual types to determine the best time to plant each one.
How To Start Seeds Successfully Once you've determined what to plant and when, it is now up to you to give these tough, yet vulnerable seeds, the great start they need to thrive. Containers Seed starting trays are the best choice for planting seeds. Small pots or growing trays sprinkled with seeds are also good. Seeds don't need a lot of space at first. In fact, too much space can be detrimental. The soil easily becomes water-logged or takes too long to dry out, causing mold and diseases to take hold. Whichever container you use, it must have drainage holes. Once the seedling has reached a few inches tall, transplant it to its own slightly larger container to facilitate growth.
Soil Use a good organic potting soil made for seed starting. Never use dirt from the garden or yard. Dirt from the garden is too dense and may contain pests or diseases. Seed starting potting soil is properly aerated, has the correct nutrients, and is designed for optimal seed-sprouting success. Planting
Fill the containers with potting soil and water it until it is moist. It is better to get the soil wet before adding the seeds, so they don't get disturbed after planting. On the seed packet, there is a recommended planting depth. For small seeds, best practice is to sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil and then lightly cover them. Do not bury them. They need light to grow. Larger seeds are best pressed into the soil to the recommended depth. Not all seeds will survive, so plant more than you anticipate needing. But, not too much, or you may find yourself begging the neighbors to take a few!
Water Water the seedlings at least once a day; twice a day is even better. Use a spray bottle, not a hose or watering can. This ensures the soil doesn't become water-logged, and the delicate sprouts don't get disturbed. Once the seedlings reach a few inches tall, water them regularly, though it is still important not to water-log the soil and to be gentle so as not to disturb the roots. Light & Heat Cover the planted trays or containers with a piece of plastic or wood. This assists in heat retention, and the darkness spurs germination. Seeds need lots of warmth. The majority of seeds need a soil temperature above 65F to germinate. This can be difficult to attain in cold climates. Place the tray near a water heater or use special seedling heating pads, which are excellent at maintaining a constant warm temperature. Check the seeds often for germination. It can happen as quickly as two to three days or as long as 10-14 days for some vegetables. As soon as the seeds sprout, remove the cover and place the trays in a place with lots of sun or light. If there are no sunny windows available, grow lights are a good alternative. If the seedlings are left too long in the dark, they will become straggly and struggle to thrive. Transplanting When the outside temperatures are accommodating, based on the planting charts for your area, and the seedlings are strong enough, they are ready to go outside. Acclimate them to the change in the environment by putting them outside for an hour or two each day. Increase the time over a couple of weeks until they are ok outside for the entire day. Moving the seedlings outdoors with acclimating them will shock them, causing stunted growth and possibly killing them.
We'd love to hear your seed-starting stories!
Blog by Jenny Dunklee, Senior Plant Expert, BloomCatch