Seed Starting 101
You know spring is close when the seed order arrives! That’s right, the babies are here! My package from T&T Seeds was there waiting for me when I got home from work today!
I am a big fan of T&T, based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. T&T has been the go-to greenhouse for my grandparents, my mother, and now myself. Whatever they sell has been tested to survive the harsh Manitoba climate and mature within our short northern prairie growing season. They also offer a great selection of heirloom variety plants. I know I can count on their products to not just survive, but thrive! After trying other reputable Canadian seed companies, I don’t find their products do as well as T&T’s for me.
I am looking forward to putting my little townhouse condo yard space to work for me this year. Last spring I was not in any shape health-wise to tend much of a garden and the year before that was flooding wedding craziness, so this will be the first year where I’ll actually get to do some serious gardening. The plan is to build two new beds out front of the house on either side of the walk way and try my hand at edible landscaping and to revamp the backyard for maximum growing space! Last winter’s extreme cold forced a full replant of my herb garden last spring (except for the chives – they survived, but I’m pretty sure they could survive the apocalypse…). My fingers are crossed that everything survived this year. Only time will tell.
But until I can get all these great outdoor projects going, I’m going to content myself with my own little grow op in the spare bedroom. We only have two south-facing windows in our house, one in our high-traffic kitchen and the other in the upstairs spare bedroom. Since I spend enough time in the kitchen on cooking and meal prep and the kitchen is a busy enough place as it is, my babies get the bedroom for their sunlight, carefully arranged on the table in front of the window for maximum light exposure.
The key to a successful gardening season in the Great White North is starting early! The bigger and stronger your seedlings are before they move outdoors, the better off they will be and the better they will produce (with proper care, of course). Here are some of my tips and tricks for starting your seeds this spring!
Use Good Quality Potting Soil
Almost every planting, gardening, or seed-starting guide includes this directive, but what is good quality potting soil? You want your potting soil to retain moisture, allow for air circulation to the seed and roots, and support healthy plant growth.
Good potting soil contains peat moss (for moisture and nutrient retention), pine bark (for anchorage, nutrient and water retention, and air circulation), and either vermiculite or perlite (or a mix of both) (for moisture retention and air circulation). The weight of the potting soil is not necessarily indicative of the quality of the soil. Heavy soil can mean high water content, which can mean the soil has begun to breakdown in the bag resulting in a loss of air space and increased risk of root rot diseases, or that sand has been added to the soil as a cheap filler in place of peat moss or pine bark (unless it is a mix designed for succulents/cacti).
Some potting soils come with fertilizer or additional moisture retaining agents mixed in as well. I prefer to use soil without fertilizer. Most of these fertilizers are chemical compounds that I don’t want my plants (and by default, me) eating. I prefer to be able to control and monitor what and how much of my own compost and organic fertilizer my plants need. I typically use the organic potting soil mix found at Costco. It is a little on the heavy side (from water, not sand), but it is organic, affordable, and my plants do well with it.
Use the Right Containers
There are a variety of containers available for purchase designed specifically for starting seeds. If you have these, or have access to them, great! I don’t and don’t really feel like paying for something I’m only going to use a few weeks of the year.
Instead, I use old paper egg cartons (not styrofoam ones). We buy our eggs by the 1.5 dozen from Costco and they come in lovely brown paper cartons which work amazingly well for starting seeds. You just need to make sure you put them on something waterproof (like an old cookie sheet) so when moisture soaks through the bottom it doesn’t damage the surface underneath if that is a concern. I have heard of some people transplanting their seedlings in the egg carton cups, but I don’t find they decompose fast enough and I’m not too keen on the glue residue and what not getting mixed into the soil of my garden.
Another option is to save egg shells and use those to start your seeds in. You simply save egg shell halves, fill them with soil, and plant your seed. Then you can arrange them in the egg carton and transplant the seedling with its egg shell “pot” right into your pot or garden. The calcium from the egg shell will contribute to soil health and can help prevent issues like blossom end rot on tomatoes and zucchini.
Know Your Timing
When considering your garden schedule, there are a few different dates and/or timelines to take into consideration.
Often, seed packets list the number of days to maturity for the plant. This is not necessarily the number of days from germination until harvest. If the plant is usually sown directly into the soil (like root vegetables), then it is the average number of days from germination until harvest. If the plant is usually started indoors and then transplanted (like squash or tomatoes), it is the average number of days from transplant until harvest. Keep in mind that temperature, moisture, access to light, fertilization, soil quality and a variety of other things can influence the actual time it takes a plant to mature.
Another important “time” is germination time. Some seeds take much longer than others to germinate, and your seed packet will usually tell you how long, on average, and what kind of conditions a particular seed needs to successfully germinate. It is important to pay attention to this information when starting seeds as it plays into your decision of when to start the seed in order to have it ready to transplant at the correct time. Which leads me to the third “time” it is important to be aware of.
In Canada and the northern United States, every area has a frost-free date. This date, based on an average, is when the last frost is typically seen. After this date, on average, there is no more frost until fall. You DO NOT want to transplant your carefully-tended seedlings only lose them to frost. In Calgary, this day typically falls over or near the Victoria Day long weekend, so guess what my plans are for the long weekend this year!
This date varies from year to year, so use your best judgment when it comes to moving your seedlings outdoors. For my fellow Canadians, you can visit the Farmer’s Almanac Frost Chart for Canada to find out what your local frost free date is. For my neighbours to the south, you can visit the Frost Chart for United States. Since I know when my frost free date is, I know when to have my seedlings ready to transplant. This, in turn, tells me when I need to start them indoors.
Follow Germination Instructions
Seed packets usually have very good instructions on the optimal germination conditions for a particular seed. It is important to follow these instructions. Conditions getting too warm or too cold or too dry can negatively impact the success of your germination.
For those seeds that require moist, warm germination conditions, tenting the seeds with plastic wrap in a sunny locations is an excellent solution. This still allows light in and traps the heat and moisture to give those little seeds the boost they need! You can also place a heating pad underneath the containers to help keep them warm until the sprouts come up. Misting with a spray bottle is the best way to water your starting pots as needed. This prevents the soil from washing away or compacting around the seeds, allowing them to continue to breathe. Once your seeds have sprouted, be sure to remove the plastic wrap and/or heating pad. Germinating seeds need to be kept warmer than sprouted seeds. You don’t want to cook your seedlings!
Once your seedlings are out of the ground and have their first true leaves, you can begin to fertilize them. The true leaves are the first leaves to appear following the initial two little cotyledon leaves that leave the seed. Using a diluted liquid fertilizer (like fish emulsion) is best. You can mix it into the water in the spray bottle you are using to water the seedlings. Alternatively, you can place the pots in a tray of the fertilizer and allow the roots to absorb it. I have also made “compost tea” to fertilize my plants. You take some compost and put it in a pail with water. Let it sit until the water has leeched out most of the nutrients and then drain the water off. This tea water is your fertilizer.
Your seedlings need to be challenged in order to withstand the external environment when they get there. You can start by petting them. Run your had gently over the tops of the seedlings, just enough to get them bend a little bit. As they grow, you can get more aggressive. You can also place a fan near your seed trays to blow on them, mimicking wind they would experience outdoors. If you choose to use a fan, just be aware that it will make the soil dry out faster.
About a week before transplant, you will need to “harden off” the plants to enable them to withstand the elements. Begin by placing them outdoors during the day in a shady, sheltered spot. Be sure that the risk of frost during the day has passed. Each day, move your seedlings to a progressively more “challenging” spot. Be mindful of how much direct sunlight they will receive in each spot. Too much direct sunlight too soon can burn the leaves and stress or kill the plant. By the end of the week, they should be ready for their new homes!
My goal for this summer is to grow enough produce to feed us for two months. It might be a little ambitious, but I’m curious to see how close I’ll come! Are you doing any gardening this spring/summer? Favourite plants to grow? Any tips or trick of your own? Please share!