It’s been decided. The first round of seed-starting 2008 starts today. I considered shooting a mini video how-to of this procedure to post here but decided against it because it is another miserably grey and sunless day in Toronto and video would require the additional hassle of setting up lights. And of course I would need to shower, dress, and “style” my hair. My friend Jen insists these extra steps are not required but I’m convinced that a video shot in my pj’s is a little more truthiness than I’m comfortable revealing to the world. Rest assured, dear reader, that despite the occasional slip into TMI territory you will never be asked to peer inside my fridge, or my bag.
And in truth a seed-starting video how-to is redundantly painful when I think about it. Certain aspects of seed-starting are certainly troubling, but the part that involves plopping some seed-starting mix in a container, adding some seeds, and covering the hole with more soil really is that easy. I’m going away for a long weekend soon, smack dab in the middle of a critical point in a young seedling’s life, so I’ll be starting this batch in my self-watering seed-starter — my neighbour has enough stress dealing with the cat and house plants, I don’t need to add Keeping Very Important and Very Fragile Seeds Alive to the list.
There are a million and one ways to approach just about any gardening procedure and everyone will tell you their way is THE RIGHT WAY when in fact there are lots of right ways. That is the first and most important lesson beginner gardeners should know if they want to save themselves a whole lot of future hair-pulling.
Below, in a nutshell, is how I get my seeds started:
- Assemble tools and ingredients including but not limited to: Seed-starting mix, empty containers or self-watering device, seeds, water. If your containers are previously used you’ll probably need to wash them in some hot soapy water. Add a few splashes of oxygenated bleach.
- Moisten a batch of seed-starting mix by dumping it in another container, adding in enough water to make the mix damp but not soaked.
- Loosely fill each container or chamber with the pre-moistened seed-starting mix and lightly press the soil to eliminate air pockets and bubbles. Another container of the same size works well and of course so do your fingers.
The goal here isn’t about seeking a perfectly level surface, reasonably level with suffice. The key is to try and leave a little space between the tamped soil surface and the top of the container/chamber so there is space to cover the seed/s later on. The only trick here is to make sure the amount of space left is relative to the depth each particular seed needs to be buried. Seed packets will tell you what’s what but a good general rule-of-thumb is to bury the seeds approximately as deep as they are in size. So following this theory a tiny seed like basil would need to be buried quite close to the surface while a pea or bean would need to be buried about a half-inch or so below the soil surface.
I prefer this method to making a hole because it allows me to space as many seeds as necessary. Of course making holes will work just fine too.
- Sow a seed or two or three in each container/chamber. I sow more than one to be sure at least one germinates but how many depends on the size of the container. You can always cut extras out later but you waste time trying again with seeds that don’t germinate. If you’re unsure about the shelf-life of a pack of seeds you can always try testing them out first.
- Cover the seeds with a layer of seed-starting mix. I’ve used vermiculite too but to be honest haven’t noticed a difference. Either works just fine. Remember that the amount of coverage required varies depending on the seed. Consult your seed package or use the general rule of thumb I mentioned above.
- Place your containers on a tray and water from the bottom (into the tray rather than the container). Remove any excess water that is still sitting in the tray 15 minutes later.
- Place your tray in a warm spot. It’s optional but I can’t say enough about a heating mat. They’re not cheap so I don’t recommend it if you’re not yet sure if seed-starting is your thing. However, a mat (sort of like a bottle warmer for plants) will provide constant heat at just the right temperature. At this stage in the game light isn’t an issue (for most seeds) but warmth is critical in aiding germination. Unfortunately the warmest spot isn’t always the most convenient — appliances make adequate but slightly dangerous make-shift heating mats!
- Tag or label each container. Do not delude yourself into thinking you will remember what you’ve started where. I’ve grown enough mystery plants to have developed a deep appreciation for labeling.
- Keep the soil damp like a sponge that has been wrung out but not soaking wet. Now relax and wait for the magic to happen.
Many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are rapidly approaching that last straw part of winter, looking for a little sun and some springtime cheer to warm our hearts, minds and bodies. When you can’t take another minute of winter it’s time to start talking about seed-starting! When I’m looking toward spring I think about the seeds I will start indoors but I also like to focus on the earliest crops, seeds like peas, cilantro, lettuces, and spinach that can be started outside as soon as the ground thaws. If you’re on the west coast you can probably start planting peas very, very soon if not already. If you’re in Florida you were still eating fresh peas off the vine a month or two ago. If you’re in the northeast like me, you can start thinking about the peas you’re going to grow. Someday. In the future.
There’s years of information on this site and I know it can be hard to find, so I’ve put together a list of seed-starting articles and posts that will give your mind and spirit a jump start into spring.
I posted this recipe a year ago but it is buried in a larger post and I decided it would be better-accessed if it had its own place. Making your own mix is SUPER easy and worth the small effort if you are growing a lot of seedlings.
These are the ratios I prefer. If you don’t need a huge batch you can use this as a basis for choosing a store-bought seed-starting mix. Always read the label and look for an ingredients list. Most popular brands have chemical fertilizers added that are unnecessary and will defeat the purpose of growing organically.
Instead, buy a basic mix and add in your own organic materials. I suggest adding a touch of vermicompost and watering your plants with a diluted sea-kelp mix. To be clear, seeds do not require any fertilizers until they produce their first set of “true leaves“. In basic terms this means the second set of leaves you will see. The first leaves that appear are called “seed leaves” and feed the seedling until the first “true leaves”appear.
- 1 part peat or coir (Coir is a sustainable peat substitute made from coconut husks. Peat is mined from marshland, destroying natural habitats. When you can, use coir.)
- 1 part perlite (popped volcanic ash that creates good drainage.)
- 1 part vermiculite (water absorbing material made from the mineral mica)
This is one of those ideas that is insanely simple yet effective. Grow a couple of lettuce varieties with pretty leaf shapes and bright colours. Put them together in a container that sets off their leaf colours or grow them in individual pots of a contrasting colour. In this case I have two leaf lettuce varieties with very curly leaves and contrasting colours (‘Ruby’ and ‘Henderson’s Black-Seeded Simpson’) set off by a black metal container. Hint: Chartreuse and yellowish greens always looks good when paired with deep reds or purple.
The key to keeping lettuce happy on a hot deck is to move the container to a less intense spot when the heat of summer kicks in and make sure to keep the soil moist — they’ll get bitter faster if they experience too much drought. You can cut each leaf off individually (remove from the outside if you want to keep a nice rosette) or just chop the whole thing off about an inch or so from the soil line and set the plant aside (somewhere less visible unless you’re comfortable with the stubby bits on display) until it grows back a second harvest.
By the end of the second round the leaves are usually too bitter to eat. Don’t toss it out into the composter just yet! You can still get some use out of your lettuce by setting the plant into hotter sun (don’t forget to water!) and allowing the plant to bolt. Bolting is when a plant produces flowers and then seeds prematurely in a mad rush to reproduce itself when the growing conditions become too extreme. This is usually caused by the increasing heat of summer and intense sun. The colour will often deepen in hotter sun and some lettuce varieties will grow into crazy, alien towers with pretty flowers perched on top. Don’t bother trying to eat it at this point since it will taste horrible and ooze a gluey substance when cut, but it makes a very cheap and easy bright spot when set amongst boring edibles like tomatoes and potatoes.
Yesterday afternoon I brought home a first harvest from the four different kinds of hardy sage (Salvia officinalis) I’ve got growing at the community garden. It’s not much, just a handful of clippings that I pinched off to make the plants grow bushier but it’s more than enough to make a whole lot of delicious scrambled eggs. I removed the flowers because I moved the flowering plants from my former plot earlier in the season and would rather they put their energy to getting well established and making lots of lush and tasty leaves than making babies so-to-speak.
- Garden sage – Your standard, cold hardy, culinary sage. I am making it sound dull here but really you can’t beat the standard variety when it comes to hardiness and productivity. I grew a bunch of plants in my planter box a number of years ago and they survived for years getting larger and more prolific every season. This variety flowers like crazy after its first season — I like to snip a few off to put in a vase on my desk but you can eat them too or brew them into a tea. Leave a few in the garden where they will attract lots of pollinators and beneficial insects.
- Purple Sage – I find this one to be less cold hardy than the garden sage but it will survive outdoors in colder climates if you give it lots of chance to establish itself and provide mulch or winter protection. I have grown it in the past and it never seems to get as large and bushy as the garden sage but the dark purple colour is just so pretty and makes a great contrast to the golden and tricolor sages. I am a sucker for just about anything purple in the garden.
- Golden Sage – This variety seems to have the same issues as the purple but the chartreuse splashes in the leaves are hard to resist. Chartreuse is my other colour weakness. I’ve got the chartreuse/gold version of just about every herb (oregano, marjarom, etc) in my community plot this year.
- Berggarten Sage – Similar to garden sage but with a dense, low growth and big, soft, oval leaves.
I have a fifth tricolor plant growing in a pot on the rooftop deck. I find the coloured sages are best for pots because they tend to stay on the smaller size and develop a really interesting topiary look if you remove the lower leaves and allow the plant to grow a woody bottom stem.
p.s Yep, those are my dirty fingernails in the photo above. Thanks to Davin for taking the photo.