Starting seeds is the joy of spring gardening. It reflects confidence in natural cycles, the self-discipline needed to plan ahead, and the patience to wait for results.
As an experienced gardener, it is all too easy for me to take some tasks for granted, having done them for so long. My husband pointed out the error of my ways last summer when, during my annual desert outing, the aboveground portion of our backyard lawn died. He protested, saying it wasn’t his fault, that I had told him to not water it. My (incorrect) assumption was that he would know the difference between watering for growth and watering for survival. The mistake was mine. In an effort to avoid the same problem for beginning gardeners, this set of instructions will walk you through one of my favorite spring gardening activities: starting seeds.
Before you can plant seeds, you need to figure out what you want to grow. You will also want to ask yourself if you want only organic seeds, open pollinated seeds, or hybrids. Browsing through seed catalogs can be intoxicating. Rather than ordering everything that looks good, ask yourself which plants are:
Some seeds can be planted directly into the ground. This is called direct sowing. While all growing areas will serve your plants better if they are fed with aged manure and compost, this is not particularly true for seeds and seedlings. Compost is swarming with microbial activity. Some of those microbes might cause problems for tender new growth. So can too many nutrients or, more commonly, nutrient imbalances. Simply adding nutrients on a schedule, whether as fertilizer or compost, backfires more often than not. Too many nutrients is just as bad as not enough. In some cases, it is worse. So get your soil tested by a reputable lab before you start transplanting or amending the soil. It will save a lot of time, money and effort later on.
Seeds are better off started in small pots filled with high quality potting soil or starter mix. You can also use soilless mixes. Do not use planting soil. Planting soil, also called topsoil, is formulated as a soil amendment to be added to the ground. Potting soil is a special mix of vermiculite or perlite, peat moss, and/or shredded pine bark that are added to the soil to make it easier for containerized plants to thrive.
Your seeds have a much higher chance of success if you use this information. I save seed packets for future reference. Some gardeners turn emptied seed packets into plant labels. I have found that the paper packets don’t last very long, exposed to sun and rain, unless they are in a plastic bag. Instead, I have a plastic bin with a tight-fitting lid that holds all my seed packets, empty and full, in alphabetical order, for easy access.
I have found that starting seeds in small containers is the easiest. Placing one seed into each small container allows tiny roots to develop unchallenged. It also makes transplanting less stressful, since you don’t need to pull entangled roots apart from multiple plants. [Leeks and scallions are the only exception. They prefer sticking together and it doesn’t hurt them to be planted in this way.] Personally, I hang on to those plastic seed starting pots, called “cell flats” whenever I buy seedlings. It is important to clean and disinfect them each year to avoid spreading pests or diseases from one year to the next. Old cell flats should be soaked in a household cleaner, such as Lysol, for 30 minutes to eliminate pathogens. Once I have used up all of my cell flats, I turn to seed starting containers that can be planted directly into the ground, once the seedling is strong enough. The following biodegradable seed starting containers can be made or gotten for free:
.You can also buy biodegradable seed starter pots made from peat moss, shredded wood, or paper, or sterilized manure (for extra nutrients). Many people save take-out food containers, with clear plastic lids, for seed starting. The plastic covers keep warmth and moisture in. Just be sure to remove them as the plant gets taller!
I’ll bet you thought I’d never get to it! Just like painting, planting is far more about preparation than the actual name implies. Once you have your seeds, containers, and potting soil, I strongly urge you to collect a pen or marker and a bunch of popsicle sticks or other material to use as a plant label for each cell flat or other collection of starter pots. Please believe me - I speak from experience. It really stinks when you forget to do this because many young plants are very difficult to tell apart until they are long past the transplanting stage. I have a container that we use to collect popsicle sticks throughout the year. Come spring time, they are very handy.
Follow these steps for successful seed starting:
As difficult as it may be to wait for warmer temperatures, seeds planted too early tend to grow into spindly, less productive plants. Using the seed packet information is to your advantage.
Now your seeds are started and the waiting begins! Use this time to prepare garden beds, raised beds, containers, towers, and other planting areas so they will be ready when it is time for transplanting!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!