Imagine filling a vase full of flowers that started out as seeds from a friend’s garden, or eating an organic tomato salad you grew yourself from one tiny seed. Growing from seed makes the gardener connect to the cycle of life. Plants are so much more than landscape materials, supermarket produce and florist flowers. Every abundant, colorful, special garden began with just a handful of seeds. You need a few basic ingredients for seed starting besides seeds:
Seed starting containers (recycled plastic cups with holes poked in the bottom–anything that drains). Or fancier seed starter kits.
Sterile seed starter planting mix (if not using a kit)
- Fish emulsion fertilizer (sustainable)
- Plant labels
- Spray bottle that has a mist nozzle
- Light: Indoor southern exposure or grow light
- Transplant Pots (2"-3" pots)
- Potting mix (when seeds get bigger)
Wet the seed starter mix thoroughly and drain. Put the seed starter mix in a garden tub and really soak it. You want to get out all of the air pockets. It should be damp but not waterlogged. Do not substitute heavy potting or garden soil. The lightweight seed starting mix will allow for air circulation and moisture at just the right level for germination. Also, non-soil mixes are sterile and don’t spread fungus or weeds.
Fill your chosen containers with the moist seed starting mix to about one inch from the top of the container.
Now, the seeds. No matter what you want to plant: annuals, herbs, vegetables or perennials, you must figure how many plants you want or don’t want. Ten zucchini seedlings will grow up to take care of the zucchini eating population of southern Westchester. One plant will produce about three zucchinis a week! So do read the seed packet information. It will give you the height, width and yield of the plant. Lots of beginners start off with 25 zucchini seedlings. Of course, you can open a zucchini farm stand.
Check the seed packets to see if the seed you are planting needs light to germinate. If light is required press very lightly into the mix, if they do not need light to germinate cover with ¼ inch of vermiculite and tamp down.
Mist the seeds with water.
Label the seed container or stick in a plant marker. (Yes, you will get confused if you don’t mark it now.) Cover the container with a clear plastic top. Plastic take-out chicken containers, with holes punched in the bottom, are ideal for this.
Place your container in your warm southern exposure or under grow light. As soon as you have seedlings, remove the plastic greenhouse cover. You don’t want seedlings in an excessively damp environment because it can produce fungi and diseases.
Water the containers from the bottom by setting them in a sink or pan filled with a couple of inches of water. You want evenly moist containers, not drenched.
Gently brush the seedlings with your hand a couple of times a day to encourage strong stems. In nature, plant stems grow sturdy from wind, so you are simulating a gentle breeze.
When your seedlings grow two sets of leaves you are ready to transplant your seedlings into a transplant pot. They won’t look like the adult leaves of the plant just yet but they will eventually. Again, that’s why the label is so important.
Wet the transplanting mix created for seedlings.
Fill the pots 2/3 full of damp mix and very gingerly pick out your seedling by holding the leaves. If you grab the stem, you will most likely destroy the seedling. It’s fine if most of the seed mix falls away.
Place the seedling transplant into the new pot and lightly fill in around the seedlings roots with transplant mix and carefully tamp down.
Place the newly potted transplants back in the southern exposure or under your grow light and replace the plant label.
Water transplants regularly from the bottom until they get about 3 inches tall. At this stage you can now water from the top. When you water you can fertilize with a sustainable fish emulsion at 50% of the label recommendation.
Continue to brush the seedlings daily to encourage strong stems.
If you have more than a few seedlings in each pot, now’s the time to thin the seedlings. Using a small scissor, snip out overcrowded seedlings as opposed to pulling them out, injuring delicate root systems. Seedlings need room to grow. Too many seedlings will compete for limited competition for nutrients, stunting growth.
When the danger of frost is over, you can now transplant your babies into the garden.
Then, pat yourself on the back for growing your own food and flowers!
- Don’t over water!
- Start out with easy plants to grow from seed: dianthus, coreopsis, lettuce, basil, chives, sage, oregano, marigold and zinnia to name a few.
- Put your plant labels from the containers directly into your garden.
- Follow the guidelines on the seed packets.
- Give the pots a turn every week so the plants grow straight.
Looking for organic sustainable fish emulsion fertilizer, pots, seed starting kits, labels and grow lights? These online mail order suppliers have everything you need to get started.
Organic Fish Fertilizer, sustainably harvested from fish scraps: www.neptunesharvest.com
Pots, grow kits, seed starting and transplant mixes:
Annuals, Vegetables, Herbs, Perennials:
Catherine Wachs is a landscape designer, serving Westchester NY and Southern CT. Her design company is called The Lazy Gardener