For my birthday this year (which occurs in February) my ever-thoughtful husband bought me some equipment for starting seeds indoors. Specifically, he got a height-adjustable grow light, two trays with multi-hole inserts and plastic dome lids, two heaters to encourage germination (which would otherwise be quite slow in our coolish basement), and a timer to control the light. Neat! Now all I have to do is figure out how to use this stuff…
Having never used this sort of equipment before, I did a little reading to figure out just what steps I needed to follow to ensure seedling success. As usual, the interwebs are awash in information from experts and amateurs alike, much of it conflicting. After some sifting, (and an eventual return to my favorite source of garden advice- Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades) I decided on the following plan of seed starting action:
1. Decide when to start your seeds. This will depend on what you want to grow, and recommended start dates can be found on the back of your seed packets.
2. Fill cells in tray (or pots in a tray) with pre-moistened sterile potting mix.
3. Add seeds, three or so to a cell, and cover with a thin layer to potting mix. Label seeds!
4. Water carefully.
5. Cover tray tightly with plastic dome lid, set on heating mat, and set mat to 74 degrees.
6. Check tray daily for water and the emergence of tiny leaves.
7. After seedlings emerge, remove tray from heating mat and place under grow light. Set light above seedlings by two inches. Set light timer for 14 hours of light a day.
8. Check daily, watering and raising light as needed.
9. As soon as seedlings are an inch or so tall, use scissors to thin seedlings to just one per cell.
10. Once seedlings are big enough, carefully “prick out” and transplant to small pots, using potting mix and complete organic fertilizer.
11. Continue as such until seedlings are big enough to be “hardened off” outside.
Today I completed the first five of these steps. I started by figuring out which of the seeds I was planning to grow would do well with a mid-March start. I opted for some fancy culinary herbs, namely, two different varieties of anise hyssop (my favorite), chervil, green shiso, garlic chives, dill, and basil. If I am going to grow as much of these herbs as I would like to use, it makes a lot of economic sense to start these from seed!
Next, I acquired some seed starting mix. Using a sterile seedling mix (as opposed to garden soil) is important because it significantly reduces the likelihood that your little seedlings with have to contend with disease as they emerge from the soil. Recipes abound for DIY seed starting mixes, but as I wasn’t sure about the pros and cons of various ingredients, I opted to purchase a bag of seedling mix from the garden center. I figure this is something I can tinker with when I get a little more experience with seed starting.
Once acquired, I filled a large mixing bowl with the mix and added water a little at a time until the mixture was evenly damp. Then I carefully filled the cells in my seed starting tray with the damp mix, pressing down very gently to make sure there were no pockets of empty space in the cells. Once the cells are ready to go, it’s time to add seeds. I added three or four seeds to each cell, being as careful as I could to put a little space between the seeds. This is admittedly a tedious process, as some of those seeds are tiny. As soon as I was finished with one type of seed, I put in a plant marker. (You’ll notice that some of my plant markers appear to be plastic spoons. That is because they are plastic spoons. I happened to have a surplus, and they’re actually pretty great because they have a big surface on which to write.) Once all of the cells have seeds, I sprinkled a thin layer of seedling mix over the seeds to cover.
Next, water the seeds. I used a two-prong approach here. First, I lifted the cells out of the tray they were sitting in and add water to the tray to water the cells from beneath, thereby avoiding disturbing the tiny seeds I had spent so much time placing just so. I let the cells sit in the tray with the water for about half an hour, then I poured off the extra water. The second prong was to take a spray bottle filled with water, and spray the top of the cells until they looked evenly moist.
Once we were all watered, I set the plastic dome lid on my tray, and set the tray onto a heat mat set to 74 degrees. If you don’t have the fancy seed tray with dome lid and a heat mat, don’t despair! I am given to understand that you’ll have just as much luck covering the tray with plastic wrap (or putting it in a dry-cleaning bag) and setting it on top of your refrigerator, or in some other warm place. My sources vary on this, but it would seem that most seeds should germinate just fine at a temperature somewhere in the mid-70s. Admittedly, setting my thermostat to 74 degrees was a somewhat arbitrary choice. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Future posts will inform you of how my little experiment is going! I’m hoping for success, as I plan to advance to some fancy Spanish pepper varieties with my next round of seeds in early April.
As a bit of a side note, I recently happened upon this excellent blog, Northwest Edible Life. The woman who writes this blog seems to share my interests, and she’s a couple years ahead of me. I like that her writing is unpretentious, and I hope that my blog grows up to be like her blog! Check out her post on March in the Garden!