Thursday, January 19, 2017

Starting Seeds Indoors

It's always a miracle to me to wander around the barren, bleak winter garden and orchard and realize that within a few months buds, flowers, and emerging plants will transform the deary, dormant landscape to a lush green garden of Eden. 

What's more exciting is that I take part in the creation of that garden.  I'm grateful and excited at all the many varieties of fruits, berries, herbs, grains, and vegetables that I can grow on my property.  

This is one of the reasons I enjoy propagating my own plants.  The easiest way to do this is to start your own seeds. This allows you to pick and choose the varieties that interest you, have more control over planting dates, and let you get a little dirt under your nails in winter.

Starting seeds let you choose the varieties.
Basic Seed Starting Principles

Every seed contains a plant embryo. In order to germinate seeds are looking for three conditions to be met:  moisture, the right temperature, and the right place or soil.  Some seeds need additional conditions such as lettuce seeds which need light to germinate.  Until true leaves emerge, the seedling relies on energy stored in the seed  endosperm for food.  

Seeds need to be planted at the right depth.  If planted too deep the seedling runs out of food before the leaves emerge from the soil.  If planted too shallow they may dry up before roots develop. 

 The proper soil temperature is needed to break dormancy so the seed will germinate. The embryonic plant is protected by a seed coat.  With moisture and warmth the seed coat absorbs water, swells and the plant germinates

What do I need to Start Seeds?

Seedling Mix 

Seedling mixes are a fine texture which makes it easy for seedlings to emerge and are a soil-less medium to discourage the fungal disease of Damping Off.  Seedling mixes are finely screened and allow good soil to seed contact.  They also retain moisture well.  You do not want the seeds to dry out during germination.  I highly recommend Black Gold Seedling Mix.  It seems to be screened better than other brands.


Any container with drainage will work so you can recycle or even make newspaper pots.  If you do a lot of seed starting it saves time to invest in trays you like.   I use Speedling trays and I also go to the local nursery, Ladybug Nursery, and purchase trays which are very inexpensive.  If using trays be sure to clean them well at the end of the season. I wash them out with a final rinse of a  10% Clorox solution and let them sit in the sun awhile before storing.

Light Source

Seedlings need 12-16 hours of light.  This time of year that amount of sunlight is not available through even a south facing window.  Plants grown without adequate light will be leggy and weak.  So invest in a good source of lighting.  I use a wire bookshelf with two shop lights on adjustable chains above each tray.  The lights need to be kept 2-3" above the plants while they grow.


Air movement promotes strong roots and shoots.  The air circulation also helps prevent disease.  Leave the fan on low the same amount of time you leave the lights on.  Be sure to rotate trays so each try has the fan on it.  Brushing your plants lightly with your hand also encourages strong growth.

Liquid Fish Emulsion/Sea Kelp 

A soil-less mix has no nutrients.  Once the true leaves appear give a diluted amount of fish emulsion every week or every two weeks.

My Seed Starting Method:

I use Speedling Trays purchased from Peaceful Valley.  I invested in these because I start so many of my own plants from seed.  There are many other options available.  The important thing is that you have good drainage.

This is a 32 cell speedling tray for larger plants.

This is a 72 cell tray.  Great for smaller crops.
  I recommended Black Gold Seedling Mix.  I have had the most success and healthiest seedlings using this mix. It is important to use a soil-less mix that prevents soil borne fungal disease.  Black Gold is finely screened which makes it a great choice. I highly recommend it.

Trays planted and under lights.

Black Gold Seedling Mix
I put the seedling mix in a dish pan and mix it with water.  You can do this the day before you plant or the same day.  Fill the trays or whatever you are planting in and plant your seeds.  Remember lettuce seeds need light to germinate so I put a few seeds on top of the soil and barely cover.  I'm fairly conservative in planting.  I put only one or two seeds per container.  This saves on thinning.  It only works if you are using good quality seeds. The older the seed the lower the germination rate.

This wire bookshelf makes a great seed starting shelf.
 When the seeds germinate, I turn the lights on.  I use shop lights on chains so they are adjustable. There are 2 lights over each tray.  Keep the light 2 - 3 inches above the seedlings and turn them off at night.  When the true leaves appear you can give them some fish emulsion but dilute it much more than the recommended amount.  I also put a fan on them after the true leaves appear.  This strengthens the stems.  Following these methods keeps you from getting spindly weak plants.

This is my goat milking room in my barn.  This is also where I start my seeds.  It is heated in the winter.
Hardening Off

Plants are ready to transplant when they have 4-6 leaves.  Indoor plants are pampered and fail to develop the strength and structure or cuticle to make them strong enough to put outside without hardening them off.  If put immediately out in the garden the leaves may sunburn and the conditions may be too extreme so we expose the transplants slowly to the outdoors which allows them to harden off.  This can take 1-3 weeks depending on the time you devote to it.

The goal is to introduce them gradually to sunlight, cool evenings, wind, and less frequent watering.

First put plants out for 30 minutes in the shade then bring back inside. Gradually increase this time and start exposing the trays to sunlight for brief periods in a sheltered location.

Gradually increase the sunlight exposure and water a little less but do not allow them to wilt.  Do not fertilize at this time. Gradually increase exposure to cold temperatures by leaving out in the evening under a porch or some protection.  If you have a low tunnel you can put the trays under the low tunnel on a good day. Do not put plants out in extreme weather.

Be sure to know the hardiness of the plants you are growing.  Below are outside temperatures needed to harden off plants based on their hardiness


Recommended Minimum Temperatures
Hardy 40° F. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cabbage, onions, leeks, parsley
Half-Hardy 45° F. Celery, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, endive
Tender 50° F. Squash, pumpkin, sweet corn
60° F. Cucumber, muskmelon
65° F. Basil, tomatoes, peppers

I ways plant new transplants under a low tunnel or cover them with a row cover.  They seem to appreciate a little protection while they are getting established. Also give a diluted drink of fish emulsion to help them get established.

When to Plant

I live in zone 5 so keep that in mind when considering these dates.  Normally seeds need to be started 6-8 weeks before the last frost date of your area.  Seed packets generally tell you if it is recommend to start that type of seeds indoors or to direct seed them into the garden.

February 1st:  Start cool season crops indoors
March 1st:  Start warm season crops indoors
March 15th- April 1st:  Direct seed cool season crops
April 15th:  plant potatoes
Mother's day:  Direct seed warm season crops and put out transplant 
May 30th:  Plant tender warm season crops
July 20th:  plant for fall garden
Sept 1 - Nov 1st:  plant garlic

Be flexible on the dates.  If you are having a cold spring postpone hardening off and planting outside.  You can always transplant into bigger pots.  Local nurseries often sell 4" round and square pots which are good to continue the growth of your plants until the weather cooperates.

Eight-Week General Seed-Starting Timetable 

Here is the general Seed-Starting Schedule for seeds that should be started eight weeks BEFORE your Frost-Free Date in your Horticultural Zone. 

Horticultural Zones 9 & 10:  Start seeds indoors in early to mid January.
Horticultural Zone 8:  Start seeds indoors in early February.
Horticultural Zone 7:  Start seeds indoors in mid February.
Horticultural Zone 6: Start seeds indoors in late February.
Horticultural Zone 5: Start seeds indoors in early March.
Horticultural Zones 1-4: Start seeds indoors in mid to late March. 

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