Congratulations! You’ve started a few seeds…Now what should you do for optimal seed-starting success? Here are a few tips you might want to consider:
1. Follow the schedule.
Seed packets come with a lot of information printed on the backs of them, most of which gets ignored. However, this information can be very helpful, especially for beginning gardeners. The packet information will often tell you approximately how many days until the seed germinates and when it should be planted – such as “sow seed indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost” or, “sow directly outdoors after all threat of frost has passed.” Do some math for your specific climate and area, and figure out the optimal time you should start your seeds.
You don’t want to start them too late, but then again, starting them too early can cause problems also. Try to stick to the schedule. It’s always a bit of a gamble because final frost dates can change – but you can usually hit it somewhere in the ballpark of a week or two either way.
2. Label what you planted.
This little tip may sound overly simplistic, or perhaps even a little silly, but you won’t believe how many gardeners (including myself at times) skip this step. You always think you’ll remember what seeds you started in this tray or that…but too often, we forget as soon as we walk away! Just label your seedlings from the start and you won’t forget what seeds you planted. You don’t have to use expensive methods to label your seedlings either. I use popsicle sticks for easy and inexpensive labeling.
3. Distribute sunlight evenly.
Each day, it’s wise to rotate your seed trays so that they are getting equal amounts of sunlight (or artificial light). Without equal amounts of light, your seeds will start to lean towards the light. Rotate the trays so each one gets the same amount of light and your seedlings should stay relatively tall and straight. Personally, I like to rotate my trays a quarter turn each morning and each evening.
4. Pay attention to your watering.
One of the biggest killers – if not the biggest killer – of new seedlings is either too much water or too little water after planting. (And between the two, it’s usually too much water.) You don’t want your seedlings to get soggy. Many seedlings will simply rot away in overly damp soil. Overly wet soil will also encourage fungus and disease, which you don’t want in a new plant.
Some trays will allow you to water your seedlings from the bottom, using a special plant medium like coconut pith or coir that wicks water from the bottom of the tray. If you are not using those kinds of trays, I suggest watering your seedlings with a spray bottle, especially in the first few weeks. An application of mist every day or two will be enough to dampen the soil without making it too soggy. As the seedlings grow and mature, you can swap out the spray bottle for a traditional watering can.
5. Use grow lights if necessary.
While south facing windows may work for starting your seeds, sometimes it is not enough light for all seed varieties. You may also run into trouble if the window pane is too cold or drafty. Supplementing your seedlings with artificial light is a good idea. Up to 18 hours of light will speed up growth. Start the grow lights just a few inches from your seedlings and gradually raise the light away from the plant as it grows. You can make your own grow lights fairly cheaply if you do it right. For more information on how to make an inexpensive grow light, click here.
6. Warm your roots.
Roots need warmth to take off and grow adequately. Often the temperatures of our homes will do, but in certain cases and with certain kinds of seeds, the roots need more warmth than our homes can offer. Adding heat to the bottom of your seedlings by using a heat mat is a great option. This encourages healthy root growth. A heat blanket is often a little bit of an investment upfront, but it will pay off very quickly as you use it year after year. One word of advice: Make sure you use a tray and a table that can tolerate the direct heat from the mat, or use a blanket or buffer medium between the mat, the tray, and the table.
7. Start more seeds than you’ll actually need.
It’s a good idea to start more than enough seeds of each plant you want to grow. That way you can account for any seeds that are unhealthy or those that may not germinate at all. This will also allow you to pick from the strongest, healthiest seedlings when it comes time to harden-off and transplant your plants into the garden. And, if you have more than enough plants, you can give them away or sell a few!