Sunday, February 15, 2009

From the Ground Up: Seed Starting (Part 1)

Yesterday I went to Merrifield Garden Center's seminar on seed starting. It was very informative & I recommend attending any of the Merrifield seminars. Heck, they're free! Anywho, this is what I learned about what info and equipment you need to start your seeds:

Light source. At first, seeds don't need light. But, once their leaves come out they will so it's best to think about it ahead of time. If you'll be starting seeds when it's still freezing temperatures outside, setting seeds on a window sill may be too cold for them. Personally, none of the windows in my house get full sun (seedlings need 16 hours of daylight), so I bought a portable grow light system. You can make your own by suspending a florescent light fixture by chains above your plants. The chains will allow you to raise and lower the light to accommodate growing plants. I would have gone this (cheaper) route if I knew where I'd permanently set up my seed-growing station. But, because we're still figuring things out in our new home, I decided to go with a less permanent, more portable solution.

Heat. Seeds, like baby humans, like to be warm & snugly, which is why a cold windowsill is not an ideal growing situation. Most seeds need their soil temperature to be between 65* to 80* at all times (it should say on the seed packet what it needs). One way to achieve this is to get a seed starting heat mat. Another way to do that would be to place them in a warm place like the top of the refrigerator. Or, if your house is 70*+ 24 hours/day, then there's a good chance the soil temp. will be warm enough (but don't turn up your thermostat to 70* when it's cold out. It will be cheaper in the long run to just buy the heat mat.) Using plastic wrap or reusing those plastic bags you put your vegetables in at the grocery store (after you clean them of course!) will help insulate seeds, but be sure to take off the plastic as soon as growth emerges.

Water. Never, never, never let your germinating seeds dry out. Ever. And, never, never, never use cold water. Ever. It can take up to 24 hours for the soil temperature to get back to normal if you use cold water. Keep the seeds snugly by using warm, tepid water. A spray bottle with a misting mode is a great way to water seedlings.

"Soil." I say "soil" because you'll need a potting mix. And most of those don't actually contain soil. I'll be using Merrifield Potting Mix because that's what I have. You do want to use FRESH "soil" that has never been used before. You want to keep everything as sanitary as possible.(Although note that most potting mixes aren't sterile. You want good bacteria with the bad.). You may also want to sprinkle milled sphagnum moss on top of the soil covering your seeds. Sphagnum moss is an organic, naturally-occurring anti-fungicide and will help save your seeds and seedlings from damping off. And it's like $4 for a good sized bag, so it's some of the cheapest "insurance" you'll ever buy!

Containers. You don't really need pots. I'm a big fan of reusing objects to reduce waste. Old strawberry containers make lovely little greenhouses. Yogurt containers, old plastic pots, or anything else you can grab from around your house will work if you poke or drill drainage holes in the bottom. What you will want to do, however, is sanitized everything in a 1-part-bleach-9-parts-water solution. Clean pots is one good step towards disease-free plants.

You may want to purchase a sturdy rimmed plastic tray from your garden center to place all your containers on so that they aren't draining all over the table. Or, if you're giving up baking for a few months, you can use a jelly roll tray.

Food. While fertilization isn't needed right away (seeds carry around all the food they need to germinate), it's worth going ahead and getting some. When your seedlings emerge, you'll be ready to give them nourishment since potting soils have little to no food in them. You can use organic fertilizers like fish emulsion (that is what I'm going to use) or kelp meal. Or you can go the conventional route with Miracle Grow. You do want a liquid fertilizer though because those are faster acting. More on when & how much to fertilize in another post...

Air Circulation. As soon as the growth emerges you want to make sure that the seedlings have good air circulation. Otherwise, fungus or other diseases will thrive on the warm dampness the seeds are growing in. A small fan on low gently blowing across your containers will do the trick.

Labels. You need something to stick in the pot that will let you know what's planted in there & when you planted it. Garden centers sell these or you could use a toothpick with a label affixed like a flag.

Part 2 will be posted in a few weeks when I start my seeds. Expect step by step photos!

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