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The Mysteries of Seed Starting

March 26, 2013

There’s something magical about starting seeds. You begin with a tiny wisp of a thing, enclosed in its little shell, push it into damp soil, and wait. Perhaps it grows, perhaps it doesn’t. Even if you understand the science far more than you did in third grade, there’s only limited amount of influence you have. You just have to trust it works.

But there are a few steps you can take to help the process along. While I’ve been a little lax in the past about taking those steps due to a combination of overconfidence and thriftiness, I’m trying to do it the (mostly) proper way this year.

Unfortunately, I’m starting hopelessly late – I should have started this process at least a month ago to maximize the season – but late is better than never. Plus, I realized last year that I should transition my seedlings outside later than most experts recommend, as the piles of leaves I plant into with lasagna gardening don’t hold the heat nearly as well as traditional soil. As a result, the nighttime temperatures in my garden are much lower than they would be with a conventional set-up and my plants are more at risk.

To make the best use of my time, I’m focusing on the plants that truly need to be started from seed, rather than those for which it’s just “nice” to. Most seeds you can plant straight into the ground, although you can extend your season and grow a lot more produce if you start inside. In contrast, there are a few plants that experts strongly recommend only starting inside or purchasing as seedlings. The chances of successfully planting seeds outside for these plants is so low that it’s not worth bothering. The main culprits are all types of tomatoes. While they grow like weeds once they’re established, they’re very fussy to start. To germinate, they require temperatures between 75 and 85 F during the day, and can’t fall below 50-60 degrees at night. Similarly, peppers are nearly impossible to grow outside in the narrow band of time we in D.C. have between “almost frost” and “so hot you melt into a puddle.” Another on the “unlikely to grow if you start it outside” list is broccoli, which requires having the soil at least 75 degrees to germinate, but reducing the air temperature to 60 F once the seeds have sprouted. How did people ever figure out how to cultivate this thing?

Considering the limits on my time and patience, I’ve decided to start seeds for three different types of peppers, four types of tomatoes (two cherry, one heirloom and one regular full-sized), broccoli, and just for the heck of it, eggplant. For each of the varieties, I planted a lot of seeds. Even if 2/3 of the seeds don’t germinate and 3/4 of the seedlings fail, I should still end up with a good number of plants. This is particularly important for the broccoli, as the seeds are several years old. I picked them up at the first seed exchange I attended, not realizing the specific conditions they needed. Although the rest of the seeds are much newer, I figured I’d err on the side of caution. If a lot more of them germinate than anticipated, I can always weed out the weakest ones.

For the planting, I’m using my recycled yogurt containers. While most people use flats, I don’t like that you have to transplant the seeds at least once into a larger container before transplanting them into the ground. I’m klutzy enough with larger plants – I prefer to handle the smallest ones as little as possible. To kill any bacteria or other crud that might have built up in the basement, I rinsed the containers, sprayed them off with a bleach mixture, and then rinsed them again after they tried.

For the starting mixture, I decided to use up the leftover mix from last year. While you can plant into compost that’s been baked in the oven (to kill bacteria), I didn’t save any last year. Compost from your yard is far more sustainable than the store-bought mixtures, which often use slow-developing peat moss from bogs. As I already bought the mixture sitting in the basement, I figure it’s best to use it up first. Before putting it in the pots, I moistened the starter mixture thoroughly. Just to be safe, I boiled the tap water for five minutes to remove any chlorine. While I don’t remember the chlorine affecting the seeds in the past, I figured it couldn’t hurt. Also, I am not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed mixing the soil starter and water with my hands. There’s something joyfully primal about working directly with the dirt you’re planting seeds into.

Damp seed starting mix

The seed starting mixture after wetting.

Now, the seeds are sitting on our brand new heat mat in the warmest room in the house. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s actually any warmer than when I had them on top of the heating vent, but it’s probably more consistent. Nothing has sprouted yet, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed…

Seeds in starting pots

Have you started seeds? How did they come out?

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