Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Seed starting... a tutorial- part 1

I love searching for "signs of spring" in March! Look what is just beginning to bloom in one of my front gardens! The children know how much I enjoy finding green things outside, so they are quick to come find me when they discover signs of spring. Today, three of the little boys grabbed my hand to show this off to me..... lovely, yes?
My absolute hands-down favorite pre-spring activity is starting seedlings. At this time in the Midwest the weather is simply not settled enough to do very much gardening outdoors. So this year, as I have almost every year for the past 17 years, I have started my own seedlings for our gardens. When I was still pretty much a newlywed with several very young children, I lived next door to a dear older woman who taught me how to start seeds. It was such a blessing to me that I thought it might be fun to put together a tutorial for you so you too can start your own plants from seed. I think you will find it to be quite rewarding!

  • a very inexpensive way to have lots of veggies, herbs and flowers
  • many varieties of plants are only available as seeds
  • I can have tomato seedlings ready to set out early in "Wall-O-Waters", larger and ready to go before they are typically available from local nurseries.
  • my seedlings are healthy and not "root-bound" as many seedlings are when purchased elsewhere.
  • this enables you to provide organic fresh produce for your family very inexpensively.
Here's how to have an early start gardening:
  1. For initial sprouting, I simply use small round plastic containers that I have collected from friends over the years. Using an ice pick, I poke 6-8 holes in the bottom of each container.
  2. Using masking tape and a Sharpie marker, I label the outside of the container with the name of the seeds that I will be starting. (It's easiest to do this now, before adding the soil!)
  3. I like to use Ferti-Loam brand potting soil mix. It only takes about 1 1/2" in the bottom of each container.
  4. Before placing the seeds in the container, I moisten the soil.
  5. Sprinkle the seeds over the soil. Remember, when starting seedlings this way, almost all of the seeds will sprout, so don't dump more seeds than you will want to transplant. I never have the heart to dump seeds that go to all the work to sprout, so have at times had way too many plants to find homes for!
  6. Depending on the seeds, lightly cover the seeds with additional potting soil. Usually about 2-3x the thickness of the seeds is all it takes.
  7. Now you will need to mist the dry soil covering the seeds until it is thoroughly damp.
  8. Then cover each container with plastic wrap.
  9. I like to set the flats with plastic covered containers under the fluorescent lights that are hung from my seed starting shelves. Most seeds don't need light to germinate, but it is a handy place to put them and they will need the lights as soon as they have sprouted.
The shelves that I use to sprout my seedlings on are about 6' tall. There are four shelves. Above each shelf I have three fluorescent lights hung by chains. Here's a picture of the shelves. The easiest mistake to make is to have your lights too far above the seedlings. The lights must be only a matter of inches above the tiny plants. If the lights are too far above the seedlings, they will grow very long and "leggy" as they search for the sun, not healthy and robust. In the photo above, the lights above the upper shelf are the correct height. The lights on the shelf that is second from the bottom are actually quite a bit too high, but those seedlings haven't sprouted out yet... so I'm ok! Here's a side view of the shelf (and of Daniel, who snuck into the photo!).

All of the lights are attached to a timer so they will automatically be on for about 14 hours/day. I kept forgetting to turn them on and off at the right time before I used the timer!

I use plastic flats for both the plastic containers that I start seeds in and for the 6-packs of seedlings that I have transplanted. These fit perfectly on my shelves if I position them with the "long-ways" going from front to back on the shelves. In that manner, I can place 5 flats side-by-side per shelf.

Hope this is helpful for someone. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask and I will clarify if I can.

coming soon.... part 2 (found here!) explaining how to transplant your little seedlings into their new "homes."


  1. It was helpful to me! ~warm smile~

    We've done this last several years.... and yet some plants get quite leggy on me. I'm starting too early? Not enough light? A combination?

    Looking forward to part two!

    Thank you, Susan...

    All's grace,

  2. very helpful, I too, will be waiting for # 2, as a fellow mid-westerner who has children very eager to begin the planting prodess!
    Thanks for the photos
    I am a visual person


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