Seed Starting: Start Smart!

Several of my friends at work and online have been inquiring about the esoteric secrets of seed starting so I figured a timely post was in order. Like many things in our modern lives this is a very simple task-though as much Art as Science which is how it should be. Last year was the first year that I started my own seeds and overall I had good success-but others can certainly avoid some of the pitfalls I did. The reason that I started my own were primarily due to the kind, and size, of gardens I wanted to grow. Firstly-as I wanted to grow organic food gardens I wanted to ensure that my plants were not GMO’s, and also my soil makeup would be very different than the typical factory greenhouse and I wanted to have as little transplant shock as possible. Finally I wanted to grow heirloom and native varieties-and Menard’s will not be selling those in their garden center-plus given that I wanted to plant over one thousand sq feet of garden, even when I could find native transplants-the cost was prohibitive. So I started my own. Here’s some of learnings and a brief How To:

1) Use sterile planting mix (It MUST say sterilized on the bag) and sterilize you seedstarting containers if you have used them before. If not there will be a fungal disease in there that will cause your seemingly healthy seedlings to fall over and wither before their first true leaves. This is utterly demoralizing-so sterilize!
2) Use good seed. I use Seed Savers as they are not GMO’s, and have amazing variety. Also if you are just starting don’t try to do crazy tropical flowers-stick with tomatoes, peppers, etc. They have almost 100% germination rates and are very easy to grow.
3) Get your timing down. Check out a gardening book or look online to see when to start for your zone. Then call your local DNR County Extension for theLast Frost Date (LFD) for your area. This will allow you to start seeds exactly when you need them and to transplant with confidence.
3) Light and Water. If you have more money than patience you can buy heating pads, motorized lighting racks and automatic waterers-you might get better seedlings, but you will certainly spend alot of coin. I start seeds to save money so I bought some trays from the hardware store ($4) , filled them with sterile Jiffy Mix ($3), and put them in a south facing window. As long as they get Sun/Light for 6-14 hours a day at room temperature the regular garden plants will do fine-if you ar growing tropical annuals it may be different. Water-I water the tray and let the peat soak it up. This encourages the plants to drop roots fast, and helps prevent mold and fungus on the seedlings. The mix should never be sopping wet, and I let it get slightly dry-but only on the surface- in between waterings. Never let the peat completely dry out! Also, if you are using a window rotate the tray every day to keep the plants straightish.
4) Right Size your pots. I try to minimize transplanting as it damages the critical roots, so I start my Big Plants in Big Pots. My tomatoes and melons get quart pots, peppers pints, and only the broccoli get a regular tray-mostly due to space constraints (70 quart pots won’t fit in the living room!). This means I spend another $3 on mix, but I get great root structure when they hit the garden. To put the Re-Use in your 3 R’s use Yogurt, margarine, or cottage cheese quarts (Stonyfield’s look great!)-just sterilize them with a 10:1 bleach or the dishwasher and poke some holes in the bottom. They are even tapered for easy transplanting!
5) Fertilizer. If you read much on seed starting you will get inundated with how to give them a nitrogen fix every other week or so. I say balderdash. Any good mix will have plenty of minerals and nitrogen to keep your seedlings going for 2 months, sure adding nitrogen will get you huge green leaf growth and they will look great- but that growth will quickly outpace the roots and it is the roots that you are trying to grow. Plus addicting your seedlings to nitrogen this early dooms your organic garden-get the plants used to growing on a balanced diet now. However, make sure you garden is ready for them with a good bunch of nitrogen-compost is fine-when you transplant them to help ease the shock.
6) Hardening off. When the time comes (reference the timing for each plant) start easing them out. Your seedlings have never felt a puff of wind and the temperature has never changed more than a degree or two. The Real World will literally do them in without your help! I have a south facing garage, so I put them in the garage for an hour or two with the door open to protect them from the wind. Then I gradually increase their exposure until they are strong enough to survive the relative trials of the garden. This is more Art than Science-listen to your plants, they will tell you when they are ready. Don’t rush them!

Now earlier I stressed starting with easy seeds-what I meant was easy species-tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, etc. And I stand by that , but I encourage you to get very adventurous with your cultivars. Seed Savers has literaly thousands of varieties. If Big Boy’s are all you have ever had-Look Out!!!! Last year I grew purple Dragon Carrots-they blew me away with their multi layered flavor: sharp almost like a radish and then a sweet finish utterly unlike any carrot I had ever tried. Plus my kids loved how silly a purple carrot was and ate them as fast as I could pick them. Most of us grow gardens for the flavor and to connect us to the land-heirlooms do both fantastically and add an element of history that take it to another level. I love Russian history-so now I can grow Russian watermelons and tomato varieties that came over with their immigrants. Growing a multitude of varieties of each species will diversify your garden with all the benefits it gives your stock portfolio-you are better able to capitalize on unforeseen trends, and are better protected from unexpected pitfalls.


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