Sowing Seeds Successfully.

It's time. Spring quickly approaches. In only a few short days, winter will be shown the door, and we'll welcome my favorite season. I know, I know...some of you are still buried under three feet of snow. I'm sorry. But truly, it's time to stop wallowing in winter and mentally ready yourself for the lushness of spring.

What better way to prepare than by starting seeds?

There's nothing better than the sweet smell of itty bitty basil, the promise of future bruschetta, or the sheer joy of growing for our pollinators--all homegrown, organic, and green-thumb nurtured.

It's also the time of year when the great debates rage: bottom heat or not? Direct sow or start indoors? Supplemental light or natural?

Honestly, you'll find as many opinions as blog posts on the subjects.

I know your feed and Facebook page is filled with seed starting posts. It's that time of year. So instead of preaching to you how to start seeds, I'm going to share with you what works for me--and why growing from seed is so much fun.

Getting Ready

Starting seeds is simple--but perhaps not quite as simple as tossing some dirt and a seed in a Dixie cup, like we used to do in kindergarten. It depends on what you're growing. Some seeds need a boost of bottom heat, some require light to germinate. Since many of us are dreaming about summer deliciousness of just-picked homegrown tomatoes, I'll focus our chat about warm weather crops. In other words, let's look at the plants you want to pamper until the threat of frost has passed.

Some of my spring crops--heirloom lettuce, Swiss chard, cauliflower, and pak choy--don't need ongoing bottom heat and even prefer a slightly cooler soil. As soon as these babies are large enough, they'll be heading to the garden.

But tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, squash, cucumbers, and assorted flowers need the protection of the greenhouse or indoors, with supplemental light and a heat source to keep them toasty.

Many gardeners plant seeds and place them on a windowsill with a bit of natural light. However, with bottom heat and a good, adjustable light source, seeds germinate more quickly and develop sturdy main stems. If the light source is too far removed from the seedling, it continuously stretches toward the light--resulting in long, thin, "leggy" plants.

Perhaps one reason many gardeners don't use a heat mat or supplemental lights is due to expense. Let's face it--there are loads of fabulous seed starting outfits in gardening catalogs, but they're also fabulously pricey. With a bit of ingenuity, you can easily create your own seed starting set-up:

Several years ago, Peter created this simple seed starting station for me. Armed with 2x4s, folding tables, and shop lights ($9.99 each at the big box stores, using "Daylight" colored fluorescent bulbs), he built the frames in a few hours. (Remember--I did this as a business, so I have four sets of these frames with lights. For starting seeds for your own garden, one frame should be sufficient, unless you're as seed obsessed as I am!) The best part about this design, besides its low cost, is the ability to raise the lights as the plants grow. I try to keep the lights about two inches above the plants so that they don't become leggy.

You can tell my heat mats are well-loved. I invested in six heat mats, with each mat accommodating four trays. (I know. I grow a LOT of seeds.) While heat mats aren't cheap, I highly recommend them. I would never use a heating pad or any heat-producing object that isn't waterproof. Growing seeds should be fun, not life-threatening, and you WILL spill water on the mats. Of course you will. So please, don't take a risk, OK?

Besides, heat mats and grow lights make excellent napping stations for your greenhouse companions.

When to Start?

Like all gardeners, I'm always ridiculously anxious to get my hands dirty while it's still freezing outside and the daylight disappears by 5 p.m. The seed catalogs cram our mailbox, and the temptations are strong. I've learned, though, to wait--as excruciating as it is, I try not to start seeds too early. It's hard, but I try to enjoy my indoor plants during the dark days of winter, force some bulbs inside, and wait until the proper time to start the seeds.

Trust me. I've learned the hard way. There are many years I've begun planting way too early.

Here's a good cheat sheet for you. First, determine your last expected frost date (LEFD). You can find the information here. Then, use this cheat sheet as a guideline for getting your babies started:

Seeds to Start Indoors Prior to LEFD (transplant after last frost)

Chives, Globe Artichoke, Leeks, Onions--12 weeks prior to last frost date
Celery, Lemongrass--10 weeks
Eggplant, Peppers, Tomatillo, Tomatoes--8 weeks
Asparagus, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Basil, Fennel--6 weeks
Cucumbers, Melons, Okra, Pumpkins, Squash--3 weeks

Direct Seed in Garden BEFORE Last Frost (hardy plants)

Onion Sets, Seed Potatoes--6 weeks prior to last frost date
Kale, Kohlrabi, Spinach, Turnips, Mustard--5 weeks
Beets, Carrots, Chinese Cabbage, Endive, English Peas, Radish--4 weeks
Lettuce, Swiss Chard--2 weeks

Direct Seed in Garden AFTER Last Frost (tender plants)

Beans, Celeriac, Cowpeas--1-2 weeks after last frost date
Corn, Muskmelon, Watermelon, Okra--2 weeks
Pumpkins, Squash--2 weeks
Cucumbers, Peanuts, Amaranth--2 weeks

What's Growing at Garden Delights?

Of course, I'm growing too many seeds. It's a given. This is the first year I'm not attempting to grow for my business, and honestly? It's very apparent that I don't know how to grow for just one garden. There are just too many delicious heirlooms and beautiful flowers that NEED to be in our garden!

I'll share the specific varieties in an upcoming post, but right now, the trays are occupied with dozens of heirloom tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, 10 varieties of heirloom lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, pac choy, kale, Swiss chard, herbs galore, and flowers--loads of milkweed, nasturtium, moon flower, Black-Eyed Susan vines, passionflower, and dozens of varieties of flowers for the new cutting garden.

OK. So I'm a little overly-passionate about seeds.

A Few Tips

Some seeds, like passionflower, germinate best if you soak them in water for 24 hours before planting. Other seeds need light for germination. Read the back of your seed packet for specific requirements. Two great resources for seed starting are the books, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and Plant Propagation, edited by Alan Toogood.

Because I plant a lot of seeds, I use commercial seed trays with plastic domes that help retain moisture. Of course, if you're not planting like a crazy woman (me), there are some great up-cycled containers that make good seed starting environments--as long as they are sterilized. When I'm ready to plant, I use an organic seed starting mix.

I've found it easiest to pour the seed starting mix into a storage container, where I can add water to ensure it gets evenly moist. Plus, it's less cumbersome to scoop the mix into the trays, and I can replace the lid and store the remaining mix for future seed trays.

This isn't rocket science. Fill the trays with moist seed starting mix, spread it evenly in the trays, make a small hole for the seed, and cover. Some seeds are better left uncovered, like lettuce. I use a spray bottle and spritz the tray with water before covering and placing on the heat mat. Don't let your trays dry out--keep them moist but not soggy. Also, make sure to tag what you've planted. I may grow 40 varieties of tomatoes in one tray, so I mark each row if they're different. But that's just me.

When the seedlings emerge, I'll give them a drink of Moo Poo Tea. Annie Haven's fabulous little tea bags produce a nutrient-rich drink for my green babies. (I soak one bag in a five-gallon bucket for three days.) You can find them here.

After the babies grow a bit and have two sets of "real" leaves (as opposed to their first, "seed" leaves, or cotyledon), it's time to give them a bigger home.

I started the sweetpeas more than a month ago. They're now growing in organic, biodegradable pots filled with organic soil that will be planted directly into the raised bed cutting garden. First, though, they're in the process of hardening off. I moved them into a partially shady location outside of the greenhouse, and each day they'll be exposed to a bit more sun to acclimate them to their new outdoor living conditions. Hardening off is necessary to ensure that all of your pampering and caring of your seedlings pays off. Slowly introducing seedlings to life outside the greenhouse (or sunroom or protected windowsill) is important. You don't want your babies to die from shock--sudden cold, strong winds, or direct sun can easily ruin your weeks of work. I usually take a week to 10 days to harden off seedlings.

Starting seedlings is such a pleasure. Today is another murky, wet, dreary day, but when I run through the rain to the greenhouse--it's a different world filled with tiny babies emerging from the soil, fragrant herbs that I run my fingers over for a boost of aromatherapy, and sweet little tomato seedlings that promise a scrumptious summer.

Of course, there's always the unexpected finds in the greenhouse which makes life interesting:

A praying mantis egg case hatched on an overwintering lemon tree, and now the greenhouse is filled with fabulous, organic pest control:

Yep. It's beginning to feel like spring in South Carolina! Have you started sowing seeds yet? What will you plant in your garden this spring?

Happy seed starting!