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Seed Starting 101: Learn More Each Season

May 21st, 2010

Now that you’ve gone through an entire season of seed starting, you need to take some time to sit down and review your successes and failures. Taking stock of what worked and what didn’t is an important part of being successful year after year at seed starting. By doing this you’ll learn from your mistakes and hopefully not make them again. It will also help you understand the exact needs of your garden and climate. You’ll also start to develop techniques that work well for you and you’ll start to figure out which methods you prefer.

If you make the extra effort each to experiment with a few types of plants each year, you’ll develop your own successful techniques much quicker. Perhaps you can try germinating a flat of peppers with a seedling heat mat and without, see if it’s worth the extra money to invest in a few heating mats to ensure better germination. You could try direct seeding some onions and starting some in flats indoors to see which option works best in your garden. For example this year I didn’t start my lettuce until February. Now I know, I need to start lettuce in January each year so I have nice seedlings to transplant into the cold frame as early as I can.

Since each area garden is essentially it’s own microclimate you will learn more and more about it each year. You may find that because your garden is sheltered by large trees and you live on top of a hill, this allows you to plant things out a week or two earlier than those that live in low-lying areas nearby. Or you may find that your garden collects cold air and you need to plant a week or two later than those around you. This is a great time to start planning your seed starting calendar for next year so you remember what you want to start earlier or later.

Spending some time thinking about the seed starting season will also help you identify your limits and boundaries. Perhaps moving 15 trays of large plants in and out of cover during weather changes was more work than you are willing to put in. From now on you can start your tomatoes a few weeks later so you only have to move a couple trays of small seedlings. Then you can plant them directly in the garden when the weather is warm. Maybe after a year of seed starting you’ll realize that it’s not for you, that you want to purchase your seedlings at a local greenhouse. If you don’t time to sit down and think about these things after the seed starting season is over you may forget by the time planting season rolls around next spring.

What lessons have you learned throughout your seed starting career be it only 1 season or 60?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Containers
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Transplanting
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

Seed Starting 101: Transplanting

May 20th, 2010

Now that your seedlings are hardened off it’s time to transplant them. You may think that all you have to do it plunk it in the the garden and you’re good to go, but that is not the case. Transplanting is stressful for little plants. We all know that stressed out plants aren’t as healthy and can succumb to diseases and insect problems more quickly than healthy plants. It would be a tragedy to go to all that hassle of starting and nurturing seeds, harden them off and then lose them because of transplant shock. There are a few things that will help your plants make it through transplanting with less stress.

The first thing you want to consider when transplanting is to MAKE SURE IT’S THE RIGHT TIME. You don’t want your seedlings to experience too stressful of weather conditions (depends on the type of plant, cabbages can take colder weather, peppers can’t). Make sure the threat of frost is over and that the night time temperatures aren’t too low. When the weather is right, pick out the spot in the garden for your plants and make sure it’s amended, free of weeds, and ready for your plants.

Of course you want to MAKE SURE YOUR PLANTS ARE PROPERLY HARDENED OFF, this is probably one of the biggest mistakes people make. They put the plants outside for a few days and assume they’re ready for the full-sun garden area. Take your time when hardening off your seedlings, they’ll do so much better if you’ve been patient during the hardening off period.

Pick an OVERCAST DAY to transplant your seedlings, or transplant them in the evening when the sun isn’t as hot. Your little plants will already be stressed from being disturbed during transplanting, don’t exacerbate the stress by planting them out in the morning on a hot sunny day.

Make sure you TREAT YOUR PLANTS GENTLY. Handle your plants by their leaves, they can do without a leaf or two, but breaking the stem can mean the end of the little plant. Disturb the roots as little as possible when you take them out of their pots to plant them in the ground. When you break and disturb the roots the plant loses it’s ability to take up minerals. There are many people that recommend watering with a weak fish emulsion or foliar fertilizer after transplanting. I usually water them in with a weak seaweed fertilizer.

You also should make sure you TRANSPLANT AT THE PROPER DEPTH. Some plants, like tomatoes & peppers can be planted deeper because they’ll grow new roots along the stem wherever they touch the soil. I always transplant my tomato seedling deeply, usually level with the bottom of the first set of leaves. Plants like lettuces like to have their root balls a little higher than the surrounding soil level, but most plants like to be planted at the same depth they were in their pots.

Have you ever lost any transplants due to weather, not hardening off, or improper planting?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Containers
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Transplanting
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

Seed Starting 101: Hardening Off

May 19th, 2010

If you’ve grown your seedling inside under lights they’ll need to be hardening off before planting them in the garden. They’re not used to the harsh real sunlight or the changes in temperature that happen in the spring. Since seedlings are still small plants they’re more affected by these changes, especially if they’ve been living the good life inside your climate controlled seed starting area. Now that the danger of frost is over and the night time temps are regularly above 50 you can start hardening off your tender plants.

Hardening off isn’t that difficult, but it can be time consuming. You want to expose your plants to the outdoor elements gradually. Usually you’ll start with 2-3 hours and work your way up to 10-12 hours. If you have a sheltered location that gets morning sun you can put them in this spot and move them around the garden to locations where they’ll get more and more sun each day. I like to harden off seedlings on my front porch, they get afternoon sun and nice breezes, but they’re protected from getting sun all day long. They also stay warmer at night because of the porch roof. Some people use their cold frames to harden off their plants since it keeps the temperatures warmer overnight. You’ll have to use a shade cloth in combination with your cold frame though if your seedlings haven’t been exposed to a lot of real sunlight.

Personally I’d rather have my seedlings exposed to the natural elements for their entire lives, but the weather doesn’t always permit this (especially here in NE Ohio). If it’s a mild spring I’ll carry all my seedlings out and leave them on the front porch, only bringing them inside when the temperature dips into the 40′s. If I’m lucky I’ll only have to carry them in a few evening a week, if it’s a cold spring I spend a lot of time carrying them in and out of the house or garage. It’s worth the effort though because I believe the little plants do much better when grown in their natural conditions. I’m considering investing in a nice shelf with wheels so I can just wheel them out into the sun and back into the garage at night. But for now I’m happy to carry them in and out, it’s good for the biceps.

Any great tips for hardening off seedlings?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Containers
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Transplanting
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

Seed Starting 101: Diseases and Problems

May 18th, 2010

Now that you’ve started your seeds and they’ve germinated you may encounter a few problems or diseases. There are all kinds of problems that can plague your little seedlings, dampening off, legginess, nutrient deficiencies, too much watering, not enough light, etc.

Probably the most common problem when it comes to seed starting is legginess, or tall spindly seedlings. This is caused by lack of bright enough light. Make sure you PROVIDE YOUR SEEDLINGS WITH A STRONG LIGHT SOURCE. If you start your seedlings by a window you’ll notice that they grow longer and towards the window, they’re searching for light. When your seedling do this they’re using up energy growing tall and spindly, they won’t be as healthy as if they were given a good strong source of light. If you’re trying to grow seedlings indoors you just about have to provide an artificial light source. I try to start my seeds in flats on the front porch where they’ll get strong real sunlight or under some bright plants lights indoors. If you keep you seedlings under light make sure they’re close, within a few inches. Move the lights up as the seedlings grow taller. If your seedlings are getting enough light they’ll look strong and sturdy. One way to add more light without adding more lights is to add mirrors on the sides of your light table. I have mirrors leaned up against the wall behind my seedling shelf.

Dampening off, is probably the most common disease when starting seeds. It’s a fungus that can attack the seeds as soon as they germinate or after the seedling has emerged. You will know this is what killed your seedlings when you notice dark spots on the stem right at the soil level and the seedling topples over and withers away. There are several ways to help prevent dampening off, the main one being DON’T OVER WATER. This is the most common mistake when people try to grow houseplants and start seeds. Let the soil dry out before you water again, and don’t water too much at once. I have read that watering with chamomile tea helps, but I haven’t tried this personally. Another way to help reduce the risk of dampening off is to PROVIDE AIR MOVEMENT. I have a small fan that I use in my indoor my seed starting area. If I have the plants outside I make sure they’re in a place where they’ll get a breeze.

You may also have issues with nutrient deficiencies depending on the type of starting medium you use. I usually mix in some Dr. Earth Organic Starter Fertilizer in with my seed starting mix. If you notice the leaves on your plants turning purple (with the exception of some tomatoes whose leaves are slightly purple naturally) or if you notice the leaves turning yellow or the seedlings languishing you’ve mostly likely got a case of nutritional deficiency on your hands. If the leaves are purple then you’ll need to add some phosphorus. If you notice the leaves turning yellow and the seedlings not growing much you most likely have a nitrogen deficiency. Seedlings are tiny plants, they won’t be able to handle a full-strength dose of fertilizer otherwise you’ll burn the little plants. Make sure you USE HALF STRENGTH FERTILIZER when feeding your tiny plants. I’d recommend trying a balanced fish/seaweed emulsion that’s easy to mix up at half strength (Organic Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer comes highly recommended by many I know). Also if you have them outside do not foliar feed in mid afternoon when they’ll be getting sun, that can also burn plants.

There’s a host of things that can cause your seed starting efforts to fail. Starting seeds too early, temperature fluctuations, too much water, too little water, too much fertilizer, not enough fertilizer, all these things can cause poor germination or the death of seedlings. It may take you a while or a few lost trays before you to get it right, but once you do you’ll know exactly what to look for and how to deal with these problems. You’ll know how often to water and when and how to fertilize and pretty soon you’ll be starting flats and flats without any problems!

What diseases and problems have you had problems with when starting seeds?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Containers
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Transplanting
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

Seed Starting 101: My Workflow

May 17th, 2010

Now that you’ve chosen your container, your soil mix and determined the needs of your seeds, it’s time to plant them. After starting seeds for a few years you’ll develop a work flow that works for you, but it can be beneficial to see how others do certain tasks. You might learn something interesting, or learn a new way to do something. Today I thought I’d share my system. Usually in January I’ll sit down and figure out a schedule of when all the different kinds of plants need started. (Here’s a nice spring planting calculator thanks to Skippy’s Garden). I do this each year and adjust by my previous year’s experience (for example, I like to start onions about a month early to allow for slow germination that can happen with onion seeds).

The first thing I do when I’m going to start some seeds is to figure out what I’m going to be starting. Since each kind of plant has a schedule for how many weeks before frost they need to be started, you don’t start everything at once. Usually it’s onions/leeks first, then a few weeks later, broccoli/cabbages, then peppers/tomatoes, etc. Knowing what kinds of seeds I’m starting also helps me choose what cell size I plan on using in my flats.

This also helps with seed organization, I organize them by type and by season (so spring brassicas & fall brassicas, etc). I can get out a folder and all of that kind of seed is in there and I don’t have to worry about checking which ones I plant in the spring and which ones get planted in the fall. I also don’t have to sort through my entire seed stash to find all the tomato seeds, they’re all in one folder. For more info on my seed storage/organization system see this post.

Let’s say I decided to start onions first. I fill 2-3 seed flats with 2 inch cells full of my homemade seed starting mix. I add boiling water and wait for the soil to become well moistened. Then I pour out the excess water standing in the bottoms of the trays and set them aside to seed in a day or two. This allows some of the moisture to evaporate, you don’t want to the soil to be too soggy!

The next day I add 3-6 onion seeds per cell (with some vegetables that have a higher germination rate, like tomatoes and cabbage I only use one seed per cell, I’d rather have empty cells than several plants in each cell). Make sure to label well, especially if you’re planting different varieties in the same flat, I usually do one or two rows of each variety (in the case of onions I do entire flats of each variety). I then sprinkle some seed starting mix over the seeds to cover with an eighth of an inch of soil mix (experts say to plant a seed 1 to 1.5 it’s width) and I spray the dry mix with a spray bottle to moisten it. Sometimes I add a clear plastic dome, sometimes I don’t, depends on the type of seed and whether I have one available. If I’m using a heating mat I definitely cover with a dome to conserve heat.

The flats are then put under a grow light or on the front porch if the weather is nice and I watch for the first sign of germination. When I spot the first signs of life, the dome comes off, this helps avoid dampening off and other diseases. If the weather is nice stay on the front porch where they will get sun for most of the day, I only move them inside if it’s supposed to be too cold. This saves me time since I don’t have to harden off the plants come late spring, which can take a lot of time and effort! When the tomatoes get their second set of true leaves I transplant them into larger pots and when the weather turns nice they get planted in the garden. I watch my trays of seedlings and only water when the soil is dry, allowing the soil to dry out helps keep them healthy.

What’s your seed starting routine? Any great tricks you’ve learned?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Containers
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Transplanting
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

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This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but just recently moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine.

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