Seed starting – tips and techniques for great results (II)

You’re Back!  Super!  In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on seed starting equipment and seed planting.  First the equipment.  There are two primary pieces of equipment needed for successful seed starting/growing.  Shop light fixtures with fluorescent tube bulbs, i.e., a growing station and a soil heat mat.  As you continue to learn about seed starting you may come across information that states you don’t need a growing station and that a bright sunny window will work.  This is true in some limited cases but for the best results invest in a growing station.

You can buy growing stations or make your own but the essentials are fluorescent light fixtures/lights that can be easily lowered and raised.  You do not need “grow” lights if you are making your own, regular fluorescent bulbs work.  The reason the growing station works better than a warm sunny window is because at this time of year (early Spring) it is very hard to get the duration of light  (12-16 hours) seedlings need to get off to a strong, healthy start.  It is not because the  natural light is not bright enough (although this is a challenge in some climates) but rather because it doesn’t last long enough.

The next item to consider is a soil heating mat.  Again, it is optional but very helpful. This mat is placed underneath the tray that holds the seeds and warms the soil from the bottom up.  A heat mat enables you to start seeds in an out-of-the-way place such as a basement or garage because it provides the necessary heat. If you decide to get a soil heat mat  you do not need to spend a lot of money.  You can get one that will work for one to two regular size trays for around $25 at places like and garden supply outlets.  Another idea is to look on websites like Craig’s List or gardening forums to see if you can pick one up secondhand.  Another option is to get creative. I’ve heard of people using Christmas lights that are encased in clear/ colored plastic tubing.  They place them beneath the seed tray to provide a source of heat.  (An insulating layer such as cardboard should be placed on the lights to set the tray on) Whatever you decide, keep in mind store-bought or homemade – soil heat mats should not get wet.  You are not looking for a makeover with a squirrelly hair do here!

As I mentioned earlier, I have this equipment (from years ago and it still works) so I have put together a station in my garage.  It is not anything fancy but includes the essentials so I should get good results.

My heat mat has a thermostat control enabling me to set the temperature of the mat. Since my seedlings are in the garage and it is still quite chilly outside I am choosing a heat setting slightly higher than the recommended soil temperature (65-70)  in order to compensate for the chilly environment.

Planting the Seeds:

O.K. so now that you have figured out what equipment you’ll use let’s move on to seeds!  There are several items you need to acquire before getting started with planting.  A quality seed starting medium, small containers, small cup, pencil, spray bottle filled with water and something to be used as plant markers.

For containers I have chosen peat planter strips by Jiffy.  They are inexpensive and easy to work with when transplanting time comes along.  They are also completely compostable/biodegradable.  There are many other options though besides some form of peat pot/pellets. Any of these items may be more accessible – small terra-cotta or plastic pots, last year’s cell packs, egg cartons, used yogurt cups or other small plastic food containers.  (I’ve also heard of newspaper pots and toilet paper tubes but have not made/used them.)  If deciding to go with previously used containers be sure to wash them with soap and a little bleach to sterilize them. If you choose plastic food cups punch a couple of small holes in the bottom for drainage.  Speaking of reusing items, I wash a few old plastic plant tags, write on the un-used side with permanent marker and use them as my plant markers. They work great and odds are you have some lying around somewhere. Very accessible!

To start, moisten the starting mix a little by spraying it (while in the bag) with water.  This gives the mix a little moisture throughout but keeps it dry enough for easy handling.  Don’t get it soggy.  Next fill your containers with the starting mix.  I use a small tea-cup (borrowed from my daughters) because it is a perfect size for filling the Jiffy strips. Now I again take the spray bottle and spray the filled planters so the soil medium is moist throughout.  (About like a sponge that has been wrung out)  This also slightly compacts the starting mix so you can see if you need to add a bit more before planting.  I recommend filling slightly under the top of container.

Once the soil is moist I take a pencil and using the eraser end create a shallow hole to place the seed.  I place the tiny seeds as uniformly as possible planting two per cup at the appropriate depth shown on the seed packets.  The lettuce, tomato and basil seeds are so small I have to remind myself to not breathe too big or there will be seeds all over the kitchen!

Once the tiny seeds have been placed into the shallow holes I use the pencil again to gently push the moist soil over the top of the hole covering the seed.  This is the main reason I use a pencil.  I find it works very well (especially with tiny seeds needing 1/8 depth) to move a tiny amount of soil over the seed. Now I pat it gently with my finger to make sure there is contact with the seed and starting mix.  When I am finished planting a specific variety I take my recycled plant tag write the name on the back stick it into the container.  I do not recommend trying to remember what you’ve planted and where.  I tried this and even years ago my memory was not that good.

When all the seeds are planted I give the containers a good spray with the spray bottle and place them in the holding tray.  I pour water into the tray so that the bottom is barely covered.  This allows the planted cups to absorb moisture from the bottom up.  Keep in mind it is important the planted cups are moist but not soggy.  Do not put too much water in the bottom of the holding tray – just enough for them to absorb some moisture but not be sitting in water.  Now it is time to create a controlled humidity environment for your seeds, i.e., a mini greenhouse.  This is done by covering your tray with plastic.  The controlled humidity ensures the starting mix does not dry out.  Many seed starting products come with a plastic dome for this purpose and they work great.  However, since I am using a tray  from my previous seed starting days I am going to create my own plastic dome.  I am using the plastic cover/slip that comes back with clothes when they are dry-cleaned. I slide my  tray into the plastic sleeve and fold the open end to close it.  The plant markers in the cups prop the plastic up a bit so it is not lying directly on the surface.

Once you’ve created the ‘green house’ set your tray in the growing station.   At the beginning it is important to set the tray approximately 2 inches below the lights.  The lights must be very close so the emerging seedlings do not stretch for the light.  This is how they become leggy  and/or weak.  It is recommended to run lights between 12-16 hours per day.  The lights are shut off during the night. Adding an automatic timer for the lights (similar to what you may use to turn Holiday lights on and off) will be very helpful in making sure the lights are running on a regular schedule. Don’t forget to check the tray every day for the next week or so and if needed remove the tray from the station and add or reduce water so the medium is moist not soggy.  Of course, you’ll be checking for the magical seedlings as well!

We’re more than halfway there but still have a few topics to cover such as what to do once seedlings have emerged.  However, I’m going to give my seedlings some time to germinate and you some time to set up a station and plant seeds.  I’ll revisit this topic next week.  In the meantime check back to see what other daily growing endeavors are taking root at igardendaily.