It’s that time of year again!
For me, starting seeds goes hand-in-hand with seed collecting, another favorite hobby, so it’s no surprise that late February is an exciting time of year.
At my house, gardening starts as we ring in the new year. The general goal is to have seed ordered and in the refrigerator, patiently awaiting a dirt bath, and ready to go when the time comes.
For me, selection is one MAJOR influence in starting seeds versus purchasing transplants.
Many heirlooms and other desirables aren’t readily available as a transplant at the local nursery.
PRO. You can start a lot by seed. Before ordering, I carefully select my seeds, which normally includes a variety of herbs, heirloom vegetables, showy edibles that double as
ornamentals, plants for my pollinators and hummingbirds, etc. The sky is pretty much the limit; it just depends on how much work you’re willing to put into the process.
Root and cucurbit crops should be excluded from your selection, as they do best when direct seeded into the ground, but of course, can be ordered in combination with those you plan to start indoors to minimize packaging and shipping cost.
PRO. Growing by seed is also insanely economical. More for less; hence, you save money. Use what you need and store the rest away (in your fridge) for the future, share with a friend or even donate to your local seed exchange. Many public libraries offer free seeds, only asking that you return seed from your harvest at the end of the season.
PRO. You’ll know exactly where your strong, healthy transplant came from, meaning you grew it so you know every detail, including the application of any amendment, fertilizer or chemical, etc.
PRO. Get a jump on the season … you will have transplants ready to go into the garden, versus beginning the season with seeds. Although your root veggies will get a slower start going in as seeds, they’ll be much happier and healthier.
CON. It takes a little space and effort.
Seeds should be purchased from reputable dealers or seed catalogs, from seed libraries/exchanges or from friends who collect. Always strive to obtain high-quality, disease
free seed that is viable and true-to-type.
A loose, well-drained and fine-textured media, with adequate organic matter, is recommended for successful germination and growth. The media should be free of insects,
disease and weed seed … which is why we don’t use soil from the back yard … who knows what’s been in (or on) it. You can buy a mix or make your own (even parts of pulverized peat, vermiculite and perlite. I tend to lean heavier on the vermiculite as it’s not quite as ‘dusty’ and retains its shape better. Be careful using moisture control ‘seed starting’ mixes. They tend to have higher peat concentrations, thus hold a little too much water for my taste.
Any container will do as long as it has adequate draining. Seeding trays are great but so are egg cartons! Choose your labeling method carefully. Hint: permanent marker applied to wood, such as a popsicle stick, will bleed when watered. I like to use plastic plant tags. By tags or reuse old tags (those that come with plants that you’ve brought home from the garden center). Permanent marker, wax pencil, or even an old eye/lip liner pencil, which works great as an alternative for its pricier wax cousin, will work well on plastic.
Moisture, temperature and light are required for successful seedling growth, however, light is not necessary for seed germination. Most interior night time temperatures are below what is required. Heat mats are a great tool, as is the top of your refrigerator. Just make sure to keep an eye out as babies begin to pop. Once germination occurs, too much heat can be detrimental to the sensitive tissue.
In terms of moisture, use your best judgement.
Before germination, the soil should be moist but not soaking wet. Spray bottles work well. After germination, make sure to water the soil versus the plant itself … leaves and stems don’t take in water, roots do. Additionally, continuous leaf moisture invites pathogens, thus problems, and we don’t want that!
Knowing when to start your seeds is critical.
The seed package should give you everything you need to know so make sure and follow the detail. Don’t forget to factor in ‘days to germination’ with recommended seeding time growth time and deduct that from the date you plan to install. I also factor in a few days for hardening off, the process used to acclimate plants so that they may be transplanted outdoors successfully.
Just like us, young plants can wilt and burn if suddenly exposed to extreme temperatures or direct sunlight when unaccustomed. About a week before you plan to install, take your plants outdoors. Start with an hour and increase slowly each day. Within about a week of ‘hardening’, your little guys should be ready to go.
The example below relates to tomatoes, however, this basic formula should lead you down the right path with any of your seed starting selections. Check the specifics per type of seed, which should be located on the back of the seed package, to determine germination date, among other things.
In past days, April 15 was considered the last potential frost and the ‘get moving’ mark for gardeners. However, with our ever-changing climate, it’s now recommended to hold off until Mother’s Day (May 12, 2019). it would be a crying shame should we lose babies – those we worked to keep alive and healthy – to a late frost … it happens.
Tomatoes, 5 to 7 weeks before frost date (Mother’s Day: May 12)
factor in germination time, 6 to 10 days (~ 1 week), unless otherwise specified
Acclimation period, 6 to 10 days (~ 1 week), unless otherwise specified
TOTAL TIME REQUIRED BEFORE INSTALL = approximately 9 weeks
May 12th – less 9 weeks … March 10th
After your seeds germinate, and the 2nd set of true leaves have developed, you’ll want to transplant the seedling to a larger container, slightly larger than the last. You can fertilize at half the recommended rate, any time after the 2nd full set of leaves appear, but not at time of transplant. The transplant procedure itself can shock a plant. We don’t want to worsen the transplant shock by give the new, young plant a literal heart attack by force feeding it!
Starting your own seeds can be a lot of fun, but of course, can always have its challenges. Just remember, be patient and don’t try and rush the process, as all good things come to those who wait! … GARDEN ON!
“A Home Grown Tradition” is written by Amy Dismukes, the TSU Nursery Production Specialist at the Otis L. Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville. Amy is a graduate of Auburn University, where she received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts, a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Master of Agriculture in Plant Pathology & Entomology. Amy worked as the Horticulture Extension Agent for Williamson County, Tennessee for almost six years before transferring to Nursery Extension. She provides educational training regarding best management practices and issues with insects, plant diseases, soil and weeds. Amy is a frequent guest speaker for professional, garden and horticultural associations and commercial pesticide workshops/conferences.