There are lots of times when people ask me why they should buy plants instead of just starting their own seeds. I always answer that plants need good light conditions, ventilation, great soil, proper watering, pest monitoring, and disease control. If they want to do all of that, then the plants will be just fine. It's really fun to see seeds germinate and pop up out of the soil, especially if you have kids in the house. The only problem with starting your own seeds is that if those steps are not all followed pretty well, you can end up with less than ideal plants, put them in the garden anyhow, and since they started life a little under duress, they won't thrive in the great outdoors where direct sun light, wind, disease pressure, temperature fluctuations and insect infestations await them. It's like raising children, the way they start out in life is really important to their overall health. If you can't have the correct set up for seed starting, I would still encourage you to try something with your kids so that they can see the magic of emerging seeds. Even though I have seen this most of my life, thanks to an avid gardener for a father, my heart still flutters when I notice the first signs of life poking through the soil. Something in our mammalian brain is wired to be excited about new life, so please don't let the description of the "proper technique" turn you off from starting a few seeds at home. I am writing out the steps to proper home seed starting so that people who really want to improve their chances of a great garden can do so if they choose. And if it doesn't work out well, you can always find a few plants to purchase!
Get set up for proper seed starting.
Lights, soil, trays, water, air circulation.
- Lights are an important part of home seed starting. A south facing window is what most people use, but this isn't really sufficient since the plants will always stretch towards the light. Unless you are using grow lights that give light from directly above, the plants will stretch towards the light and become leggy. This weaker, stretched out growth makes the plants more vulnerable so that they will not fight off disease and insect pressure as much. Here is a simple light structure that you can make at home using pvc pipe. If you click on the picture it will take you to the instructions.
- The trays you use should keep the water off the counter or table, but the plants should be grown in containers with drainage holes. At home, a simple way to do it is to use old cookie sheets or cafeteria trays to hold the plant containers.
- The soil you use should be light and made for potting plants and germinating seeds. We use only Vermont Compost Company' Fort Vee. It is a great all-around soil that feeds the plants through all of their life stages until they go in the ground. Wet the soil a bit so that it feels damp, but is not sopping or dripping wet. Fill the containers loosely and they very lightly pat the surface down so that it is smooth and level.
- Once your containers are filled, make a small dent in the surface of the soil with your finger or a the tip of a pencil or a chopstick. Drop in a few seeds, the amount varies based on what it is you are starting, but as a starting point, try 3 or so seeds. When the plants are big enough, you will prick them out and put them in larger containers individually. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of dry soil and pat down gently. Water lightly so that the seeds have a chance to soak up the moisture but not so much that they float away.
- Once the seeds are planted, keep the soil moist. When the seeds germinate (those first leaf-like sprouts are called cotelydons), it is best to water only when the surface of the soil is dry. I cannot stress enough how important it is to water properly - overwatering leads to weak growth and creates conditions that are perfect for fungal diseases and insects like fungus gnats. Think tiny fruit flies that feed on decomposing organic matter. It is actually better to under-water than to over-water. Plants that are on the dry side will send out more roots to search for water and this bigger root system will benefit the plant once it is planted outside, in the ground.
- Air circulation is often the missing element in home seed starting. Having a regular air flow is what makes plant stems strong and sturdy. If you think about it, seeds did not evolve to germinate indoors - they are meant to be outdoor creatures primarily and we have to recreate some elements of their chosen environment when we force them to grow inside. A small oscillating fan is a good idea and will promote stronger stems and hardier plants.
Let us know if you try this or what your experience has been like with seed starting at home. We love to hear about your projects!