Where To Start?

May 23, 2007

An Ask Metafilter question that caught my eye: I kill baby plants! Help me, gardeners!

I was really interested in this question and the poster’s dilemma. Since this is my first year of growing plants from seeds I felt like I had a lot to contribute. When I first started this project I was so confused and had no idea where to begin. I bought books, read forums, talked to horticulturalists and through it all I’ve had successes and failures (R.I.P. parsley).

Here was my response:

This is my first year of starting seeds indoors and through some divine intervention, I’ve managed to be successful. Here’s a pic of all the plants I was able to start from seed.

There’s broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, green pepper, parsley, zucchini, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and a slew of flowers.

I live in Zone 5 and have an average frost free date of May 6, however, I’m waiting until next weekend to put out my plants. I started sowing my seeds in mid-March. You will want to check your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone and the corresponding frost-free date. Since you are in Zone 10 your average last frost free date is January 30 and your first frost is November/December. That’s a really nice, long growing season right there. You may want to double-check with a horticulturalist at a reputable garden centre to understand the recent trends in weather the last couple of years. Some years are cooler than others.

Once you know your average last frost-free date, use this excellent seeding chart called the Lazy Gardener’s Automatic Seed Starting Chart. It’s great and what I’ve been using.

Start off with clean pots, a good soiless mix (potting mix is too heavy for little seedlings) and some fresh seeds. You’ll know the seeds are fresh if they have this year’s date on it. Older seeds may not have been stored properly and may have a lower germination rate.

Seeds need heat to germinate, so once you’ve sown them into those little Jiffy peat pellets (the ones that expand with water) then you should put the tray into a sealed bag or covered with a clear dome and put it on top of a warm area, usually your fridge. This will help the seeds germinate quicker. Most seeds have an optimum germinating temperature of 70°F. You may want to buy a heating pad if you don’t have a suitable warm spot. Once they’ve sprouted, take them out of the plastic bag/dome and put them by your windowsill.

You can also try pre-sprouting them using a coffee filter and a Ziploc bag. I’ve done this with my zucchini, sunflower and cucumber seeds and it works great. Cut the coffee filter in half (less waste), fold in half and dip in water. Unfold the filter, place your seeds on one side and fold it back up. Put in the Ziploc bag and label. Place on a heated surface like a heat pad or on top of your fridge. Check everyday to see if the seeds have sprouted. Make sure the coffee filter hasn’t dried out. Once they sprout, you can put them into your Jiffy pellets and put them on the windowsill.

Make sure they get lots of light or they’ll get leggy trying to stretch towards the sun.

Now, for your questions:

I realize that you’re supposed to harden seedlings off, but surely not at four days?
Hardening seedlings doesn’t start to happen until you get closer to your planting date, usually one to two weeks before you plant them out, roughly two months after you’ve started indoors. So, no, you don’t harden off after four days.

Am I overwatering?
The description of your seedlings sounds like you are overwatering them. If they’re on a windowsill they won’t be able to dry out quickly enough before you think you need to water them again, which may cause the seedlings to “damp off”. Try to keep the seedlings moist, not wet. Also don’t water your seedlings from above. You should add water to the bottom of the tray, let the soil in the seedling tray soak up the water for about 20 minutes and remove any excess water from the bottom. This way you aren’t disturbing the surface of the soil or damaging the stem of the seedling. If you stick your finger in the soil and it’s mushy, then you’ve put too much water in. If your finger comes out with little bits of soil on it, your soil has enough water and you should wait until it has dried out (a little bit!) before you water more. Don’t let the soil get dry at the edges of the tray.

Are they not getting enough light?
You said that you put your trays on a windowsill. If that’s all you have, a south-facing window is best. However, you may want to consider setting up a fluorescent lighting area to put your newly sprouted seedlings. I put together my grow-op with four sets of shop lights and two different kinds of bulbs. You can see the set-up and the details here (self-link). Depending on how many seeds you want to start, you’ll probably only need one light.

Am I planting the seeds too close together?
Depending on the size of the seed, I would only sow one or two seeds per Jiffy pellet, spaced 1/8″ or ¼” apart. Small seeds like green pepper and tomato I would sow one to two seeds per pellet and one seed per pellet for larger seeds like squash. As the seeds germinate you may have one or both seeds sprout. If both seeds sprout, keep the larger, stronger sprout and snip the stem of the weaker sprout with a pair of scissors. Don’t try and pull the sprout out, as it will damage the root of the stronger one.

The seedlings start to look depressed before they’ve gotten their first real leaf; should I be thinning right away?
Thin seedlings to one seedling per pellet.

Should I maybe put them outside as soon as they sprout?
No, seedlings need warmth to grow and will be stunted in cold air.

Any clear instructions on how to start plants from seed?
Here’s a couple of really detailed articles that I found helpful:

Sowing Seeds: How, When and Where to Sow Your Seeds
A Prescription for Cabin Fever: Start Seeds Indoors

Seed Sowing and Saving is an excellent book for beginners. I bought this after I had sown all my seeds as I’m now interested in how to save them and I regret not buying it sooner. It would have cleared up many of my questions when I was first starting.

A couple of good forums:

GardenWeb: Growing From Seed and also their FAQ page
You Grow Girl: Seeds, Seed Starting & Growing forum

Have fun! The coolest part is watching seeds grow from a tiny seed into a towering plant. Seeds do well in the right setting. I was pretty nervous when I started but as long as I gave them the right amount of light, heat and water they did pretty well.

One Response to “Where To Start?”

  1. […] was worried that last year’s success was a fluke, however, things have been coming up pretty well these last few weeks. I’ve had a […]

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