Ah, blissful sun, how I've missed you. If I stay at my desk, with the sun blinding me and causing funky reflections on my iMac monitor, it feels almost like summer. In fact, my favorite chunky sweater from Gap men's department (circa 1995) is uncomfortably warm. Sadly, though, my little bit of pretend summer will end in a few minutes—it's time to head outside to water the plants in the greenhouse. It's windy. It's 37 degrees. Sorry, northern friends, I know I shouldn't complain.
Only 41 days until spring. Whew.
Thankfully, seeds save my sanity during frustrating February weather.
February kicks off the seed starting frenzy at our home. While it may seem a little early to start warm weather plants, it's my business. My fabulous, I'm-the-luckiest-girl-in-the-world-business. And because I'm growing 160 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 40 varieties of heirloom peppers, and 60+ varieties of herbs and heirloom flowers...it's time.
While you probably don't need (or want) to become an extreme seed starter, growing a few plants from seed is a lovely way to combat seasonal affective disorder, get kids excited about growing healthy food, or try some new, unusual varieties of vegetables or flowers that you can't find at the big box stores. Why settle for a round, red tomato when there are more than 7,500 varieties?
Plus, how can you possibly resist all of those beautiful seed catalogs crammed in the mailbox, promising lush gardens if only you can survive these bleak winter days?
So, while it may seem a little like bad business sense to share seed starting tips, since I own an organic plant business—I just can't help myself. You need to grow something.
It will make you feel so much better. I promise.
First, you'll need a few supplies:
Everything I grow is organic, heirloom, and non-GMO. What exactly does that mean? I buy seeds from companies that are committed to using pure seed—seed that has not been genetically modified nor chemically treated. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated, non-hybrid varieties with history. While there are varying definitions of heirloom, many gardeners apply the term to plant varieties more than 50 years old.
Heirloom plants tell stories. Many seeds traveled with immigrants to America, who brought along the seeds of their favorite foods. Many heirlooms are native to the U.S., with seeds saved from family favorites and passed down through generations. Some have traveled the Trail of Tears, providing an edible history lesson. Heirlooms don't originate in a lab.
Hybrids are grown for marketability. The blemish-free, symmetrical, red tomatoes you find in the grocery store year round are typically hybrids: thick-skinned to endure the rigors of shipping, bred to enhance shelf life—and perfect, round globes to add visual appeal to consumers. Heirlooms are grown for flavor. Heirlooms tomatoes are red...and yellow...and purple, pink, orange, striped, odd-shaped, large, minuscule, sweet, tart, fruity...and even white.
Have you ever seen a white tomato in Publix?
Sadly, many heirloom vegetables and fruits have vanished—bred into extinction through hybridization. Part of my mission—and the goal of many seed-saving organizations—is to ensure the continuity of heirloom species.
Two of my favorite sources of organic, heirloom seed are Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds (
) and Seed Savers Exchange (
). Both organizations feature an outstanding selection of heirloom, open pollinated, organic seed. They're also just really nice people. Please check out their seed selections.
You also need...
Seed starting mix.
I know, I know...we all started seeds in Dixie Cups filled with dirt, placed on our kindergarten classroom's windowsill, and miraculously—they grew. Soilless seed starting mix, though, is a more dependable medium for starting seeds—particularly some of those seeds that are a little finicky. Comprised of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite, seed starting mix provides a good, clean, safe first home for your babies. The mix is light, allowing your seeds to easily sprout. It's also sterile and disease free—as long as you use a new or well-cleaned container for your seeds.
Water. (Plus watering can and spray bottle.)
The soilless seed mix is very dry, and it's best to mix it with water prior to filling your container due to the high surface tension. Once you've moistened the mix well, you'll have an easier time watering your seeds—the water will absorb more rapidly. Because I start a lot of seeds, I use a plastic storage container to mix seed starting mix and water. It also makes it very easy to fill trays and store the mix.
Containers and covers.
The number of seeds you want to grow depends on the type of container to use. I grow a lot of plants—thousands of plants—so I use trays with 128 cells. You might not need as many cells. Or you might want to embrace recycling and try planting your seeds in newspaper pots (
). Whatever your need, make certain that your container has drainage holes—and that you have a second tray or container underneath to catch excess water.
You can purchase seed starting trays at any big box store. The kits include a cell tray for the seeds, a bottom tray, and a cover to retain the moisture. Another option is to use what you have available at home. Disinfect used containers thoroughly to ensure no pathogens remain, which can cause damping off of your seedlings. Many people wash used pots or trays and place them in a 10% bleach solution (1 cup bleach, 9 cups water.) I don't use bleach, but I use extremely hot water. Really hot. Hurt-your-hand hot. It does the trick.
After you've cleaned your container and moistened the seed starting mix, fill your container (or cells) approximately three-fourths full of seed starting medium and firm the mix into the cells or container. Now, you're ready to sow your seeds.
Not all seeds grow equally. Some need light for germination. Some require dark. Some seeds want a period of cold stratification, while others might like an overnight soak. For instance, lettuce needs light for germination, so sow the seeds on top of the medium—but don't cover with a layer of soil. Other seeds require deeper planting. Read you seed package carefully to determine the best planting method for your seeds.
An incredible resource is the book,
Seed to Seed
by Suzanne Ashworth. While not a beautiful, sexy gardening book filled with lush photos, it's an amazing reference for the specifics of starting a wide variety of seeds. It's been a permanent fixture on my desk for the past three years.
Once you determine how your seeds need to be sown, it's time to get busy. The size of the seed determines how many seeds to plant in each cell. For tomatoes, I'll typically sow three seeds per cell. Many gardeners pinch out all but one seedling, but I separate them later when I transplant into pots. (We'll talk about transplanting next time.)
I've been planting lots of tomato seeds. After I finish one variety, I cover the seeds with a pinch of mix...
...and label the row to make certain I keep the varieties separated.
When the tray is filled, I mist the tray with water to help the mix and seeds settle.
Place the cover over the tray, or secure plastic wrap on top of the container to retain moisture.
You'll notice condensation on the plastic, which is good—your seeds are moist. Do not allow your seeds to dry out. Mist with a spray bottle to keep moist as needed.
Light. (Lots of.)
While some seed varieties like dark for germination, as soon as seedlings emerge, they need a light source. A good light source. You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on an official grow light kit. But you do need a source that will provide ample light—and that can adjust to meet the needs of your growing plants.
My grow lights are basic shop lights from Lowe's, fitted with full spectrum daylight fluorescent bulbs. I think the fixture and lights totaled about $15. The lights attach under the shelf that hangs above a former workbench in the basement, and the adjustable chains allow me to provide close light when the seedlings are small—and raise the light as they grow.
The most important thing to note about light is this: you want to avoid leggy seedlings. If your light source is too far away, your little seedlings will stretch to find the light, resulting in weak, leggy stems. Instead, you want healthy, sturdy, stocky plants. With good light position and enough exposure per day--most seedlings like 16-18 hours of light—your seedlings will have a strong start.
Bottom heat can speed along germination—but again, check your seeds to determine the temperature at which they germinate. Peppers and tomatoes, in particular, benefit from the added warmth of bottom heat. While I purchased two large, seed starting heat mats from a growers' supply company, you can also provide bottom heat by placing your seeds on top of a refrigerator or other appliance that generates a bit of warmth. Avoid using heating pads. They are not waterproof and could be hazardous.
Seed packages provide great information about germination time—but be patient. And be vigilant. Keep your seed tray moist and don't allow it to dry out. Also, be careful not to overwater. Once your seedlings have emerged, remove the cover from the tray and continue to water. The first leaves on the seedling are the cotyledon—the “seed leaves.” When the first set of true leaves appear, it's time to transplant your babies into nutrient-rich soil. Stay tuned for the next post about transplanting your babies...
Is It Time Yet?
For the ideal time to start seedlings indoors, you need to know the approximate date of the last spring frost in your area. Below, you'll find the number of weeks needed to start various crops. To determine when to start your seeds, count backwards from your last frost date, depending on what crops you want to grow. (An asterisk* indicates a cold-hardy plant that can be set out 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost.) You'll also find a great tool here to help you determine when to start your crops:
. Just plug in your zip code, and the tool calculates your crop planting schedule based on your zone.
Here's a general guideline for seed starting, based on last frost date:
- 12 to 14 weeks: onions*, leeks*, chives*, pansies*, impatiens, and coleus
- 8 to 12 weeks: peppers, lettuce*, cabbage-family crops*, petunias, snapdragons*, alyssum*, and other hardy annual flowers
- 6 to 8 weeks: eggplants, tomatoes
- 5 to 6 weeks: zinnias, cockscombs (Celosia spp.), marigolds, other tender annuals
- 2 to 4 weeks: cucumbers, melons, okra, pumpkins, squash
So, think about your favorite produce that you're missing during these cold, dreary months. Pull out your seed catalogs and daydream about the delicious meals you'll prepare this summer with fresh-from-your-garden veggies. Then, order some seeds, and let spring into your house.
It's very therapeutic.