Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Seed Starting with Ferne

IMG_1745 ~ Deciding what to grow:

Sources for seeds are everywhere so search around or search through your seeds from last year. Year old seeds are still viable only you will get less germination. Check beans and corn though as they tend to get bug infested first. The internet is a great resource and if you like seed catalogs you can request free ones at most sites. Share seeds with friends and fellow gardeners. A seed swap is a fun get together!

~ Record Keeping:

Keep a journal even if it is just a small notebook. Record what you planted and the results, such as how long it took to germinate, successes and failures. Most important reread your journal every yIMG_1927ear before you start planting to refresh your memory.

  ~ Get your labels ready:

A #2 pencil is the best marking tool, it doesn’t fade or wash off and it can be erased making your label reusable. A label should be 4”-6” long and include the type  and variety of plant and the date planted. Old mini blinds cut into 6” pieces make great sturdy labels. Also popsicle sticks work fine though tongue depressors allow for more information.

~ Soil and Containers:

Use a soil labeled as a Seed Starting Mix. Seed Starting mixes are light and fluffy and contain a lot of peat so they will need to be moistened before use. Add warm water to the mix and let it set for a while to absorb moisture before putting into your containers. You want the soil moist not soupy.

There are many different types of containers that can be used such as rolled newspaper pots, yogurt and butter containers, or purchased seed trays or peat pots. The most important thing is that they drain properly and that they are clean. You can reuse containers, but wash first in a bleach solution, rinse and let dry.

Fill your containers with the moist soil and tap gently on the counter to remove air pockets. No need to pack the soil in tightly, a little air is good for root growth.

IMG_2836 IMG_2840 Newspaper containers are easy to make and can be planted with the plant, they will decompose.  Here is how I make them:

1,  Tear newspaper into strips about 6” wide

2.  Wrap the strip around a spice bottle leaving about 1” at the bottom to fold over creating a bottom

3.  Seal with a small piece of tape…and viola!  recycled containers…IMG_2841

~ Planting Seeds:

A pencil makes a good size indentation for dropping a seed or two into. Putting 3 or 4 seeds in a container ensures that at least 1 will germinate. Cover seed lightly with soil either by pushing soil over seeds with the pencil or sprinkling more soil over the top. Generally a seed should be planted 2X deeper than the seed is thick. Some seeds are so small that they only need a light dusting of soil over the top. A strainer comes in handy here to light dust the surface of the soil. You are now ready to water and you don’t want to wash all your seeds away so water gently. This is where a seed mister attachment is handy or a watering can fitted with a rose with small holes.

IMG_1924~ First signs of growth:

Different seeds have different germination rates. If you use a heat mat this really speeds things up a lot. First you will see  the soil pushing up then the little stems push out and unfurl those first set of leaves called the cotyledons, these are the plants first food source and a sign that it is time to give your seedlings light. As the true leaves come out the cotyledons will dry up and fall off so don’t be alarmed the plant is just shedding what it no longer needs. A grow light is the best way to control lighting for your seedlings though a sunny window will work, but plants will stretch reaching for the light so turn them often. If you use a grow light adjust it so that is just a few inches above the plants. There are some nice grow lights available and my favorite is the Jump Start Grow Light, they come in 2’ and 4’ lengths and are worth the investment since you will use them for years. You can use a florescent fixture fitted with a full spectrum bulb. In a pinch I once constructed a light stand using PVC pipe and fittings then hung my light fixture from it using chain and S hooks to make it adjustable. Worked wonderfully for several years and since I didn’t glue it together it could be taken apart when not in use and stored.

~ Dampening Off:

A common problem for seedlings is ‘dampening off’. It most often occurs while the seedlings are quite small. The stem rots at the soil level and seedling falls over and dies. Dampening off is caused by too much moisture and there are things you can do to prevent this. Your soil needs to be kept moist, but not too soggy so water lightly with a mister, spray bottle or watering can with a rose attachment. Keep a small fan running at a slow speed near the seedlings will also help strengthen stems. Sea Weed extract in small doses helps prevent this and is a good first fertilizer for seedlings. I have also read that a 50/50 mixture of sphagnum and chicken grit sprinkled lightly over the top will help keep the soil around the stem dry.

IMG_1928~ Moving Up:

If your seedlings start outgrowing their containers before the weather allows for planting it may be necessary to move them up into bigger pots so that their roots can grow. Usually a 4” pot is big enough though I like to move my tomato seedlings into 1 gallon pots because they have a long tap root. This is also a good time to do any thinning of seedlings and eliminate weaklings by just cutting them off at the soil level that way you don’t disturb the roots of the ones you are keeping.

~Hardening off:

As the weather warms up and planting day comes closer you want to start moving your plants outside. Put them in a protected place where they can slowly adapt to outside temperatures for about 2 IMG_1933weeks before you will be planting them in the ground. Don’t forget the keep them watered and fertilized. Growing plants are much like adolescents and eat quite a bit! Also keep an eye on your new growth for signs of aphids.

~ Special Treatment:

Some seeds do best planted right in the  ground where they are going to grow. I like to do this with my squash, cucumbers, melons and beans. You can start these in 4” plants, but because they grow so quickly wait until the end of April to get them going. Cucumbers don’t like cool wet temperatures and die really easily if conditions are not just right. Peas, beans and flowering sweet peas and morning glories can be pre-started by wrapping in a damp paper towel and slipping into a zip lock bag for a few days. This will soften the shell of the seed and they may even start sprouting then you know which seeds are good.

~ Resources:


Bakers Creek Seeds -


Fine Gardening


The Edible Garden books by Rosalind Creasy (my personal favorites)

 Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy

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