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Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden

Four tomato seedlings grow in a single peat pellet, gazing out on the snow-covered garden while a box elder bug enjoys the garden spot of my basement. The pellet’s design begs for only one seed, but I like to plant two (this was a test-planting to confirm my seeds were good). When the seedlings are big enough to transplant into my garden, I gently tear the pellet apart, preserving roots on each plant. If this is the first time you’re starting seeds indoors, be cautious and plant just one per pellet. That’ll make for easy transplanting, and provide enough root space for your seedlings to remain indoors for six to eight weeks.

Many packets that hold seeds destined for small kitchen gardens include instructions for gardeners to “start indoors four-to-six weeks before last frost.” If you’ve never done this, I’ve good news: Starting seeds indoors is easy and rewarding.

To be successful, you need a space that is relatively warm and well-lighted. By warm I mean it’s best to have the temperature as high as 85F degrees… and no lower than 70F degrees. By well-lighted I mean you need artificial lights whose distance from your young plants you can adjust easily… but I’ll explain this more in a bit.

Seed-Starting Gear

Don’t make this complicated. To start seeds indoors for your small kitchen garden, use either containers filled with soil, or compressed peat pellets. In an upcoming post I’ll write about starting seeds in soil-filled containers. This post is about starting seeds in peat pellets.

A company called Jiffy makes disks of compressed, dried peat moss wrapped in nets. You can find these disks in department and garden stores. Around here, I can buy a package of 36 disks for two dollars… but there are many other packages having different numbers of these peat pellets.

If you’ve never started seeds indoors to transplant later outdoors, consider buying one of Jiffy’s “mini greenhouse” starting kits. I’ve seen both 72-pellet and 36-pellet kits here consisting of a plastic tray, pellets, and a clear plastic cover. These are brilliant! The 72 pellet kit costs only six dollars locally, while the 36 pellet kit costs four dollars.

A peat pellet is compressed, dried peat moss wrapped in a net (left). You must soak a peat pellet before you plant a seed in it. I rescued a plastic cup, cut it to about half its original height, and set the pellet inside. I added enough water to have covered the pellet to about three times its depth… but the pellet floated, so it’s hard to tell from the photo how much water I used (center). After about ten minutes, all the water is inside the pellet, and the pellet is about four times its original height. Once soaked, the peat loosens, and the pellet’s netting opens on top. It’s a simple matter to poke a seed into the dimple in the top of the pellet.

 

An expanded peat pellet is bigger than the compartments in plastic flats of seedlings you can buy at garden stores and nurseries in March, April, and May. To plant seeds, I peel the netting back from the top of the soaked, expanded pellet, and use a chopstick to poke a hole about a half inch deep along one edge of the pellet.

 

I poke a second hole into the pellet opposite the first hole, drop a seed into each hole, and use a chopstick to smoosh the holes closed. If you plant just one seed in a pellet (using the built-in dimple intended for that purpose), the resultant seedling will be happy there for four to eight weeks. When you plant two or more seeds in a pellet, you will need to “pot up” the seedlings in about four weeks if you’re not yet able to transplant them outside.

Start Seeds in Peat Pellets

You don’t need a kit to plant seeds in peat pellets, but you do need containers to manage the pellets: it’s best to moisten them by adding water to the container so the pellets soak it up from below. I’ve used plastic food storage containers, discarded plastic drinking cups, sawed off plastic milk jugs, and dinner plates to hold peat pellets.

If you spend any time in the garden department of a department store, you’re likely to spot a Jiffy Mini Greenhouse. These are truly awesome for starting seeds indoors. For six dollars, you get 72 peat pellets in a ready-to-plant container. I’ve messed around with a lot of seed-starting gear, and this is by far the simplest low-cost approach I’ve seen.

The advantage of a mini greenhouse kit is that the clear plastic cover holds moisture in and it lets light through; you can keep the cover on until seeds sprout, significantly reducing your need to water the pellets. If you do use a mini greenhouse, remember that plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and water. Once your seedlings unfurl leaves, remove the greenhouse cover several times a day… or simply set it aside; leaving it on will slow the growth of your seedlings by trapping in oxygen-rich air.

Jiffy seems to think you should start one seed in each pellet. There’s nothing wrong with this; a single pellet will support a seedling from seed to garden very well over the course of six weeks. I usually put two seeds in each pellet.

The mini greenhouse comes with 72 pellets, but you needn’t use all of them in one season. I popped more than half the pellets out, and started seeds in the ones that remained. Under fluorescent lights on my ping-pong table, some seeds sprouted in just two days. Every seed I planted grew into a viable plant that went into my garden in April, May, or June.

Originally, I planted two per pellet to improve the chance of having at least one surviving plant per pellet. I figured that if both seeds sprouted, I’d cut off the weaker-looking seedling, leaving the stronger one. When I tried this, every seed sprouted and I couldn’t get myself to kill off the runts. Still, the seedlings were healthy enough that they survived when I tore the root balls apart and planted them separately in the garden.

Timing Your Seed Starts

The rule of thumb: plant four to six weeks before the last frost of spring is a good rule. That day is different for everyone. Goodness, we have frost a mile from town repeatedly for weeks after in-town gardens become frost-free. And, the last frost date one year can differ by a month or more from the last frost date in another year.

Lights for Starting Seeds

You can find grow lights, dedicated light fixtures, and other gear in garden centers, department stores, and home improvement warehouses… but if you’re budget-conscious, please find an electrical supply store instead.

The best lighting bargain at a home improvement store is the four-foot fluorescent shop light. I’ve found these fixtures for around fifteen dollars… and they come with two fluorescent tubes installed. Why, then, do two replacement “grow light” tubes cost as much as the fixtures? Because those tubes are a ripoff.

At an electrical supply store (where electrical contractors buy stuff), a full-spectrum four-foot-long fluorescent tube might cost $1.50 to $3.00. So, for about $20 you can buy a fixture and daylight tubes to illuminate dozens of seedlings. I use two such shop lights side-by-side and could start more than 300 seeds under them – way more seedlings than I’ll plant in my small kitchen garden this season.

In hardiness zone 5b, I anticipate the end of frost by the end of April. In 2009 our last frost was near the end of May.

How to handle these uncertainties? Chance being early rather than late. So, for late April planting, I start seeds in mid-March. For cold weather crops such as broccoli and cauliflower, I’ve already started some seeds this year and figure to have the rest planted this week: late February for a mid-to-late March transplanting.

If winter drags on, you may need to “pot up” seedlings from peat pellets into larger nursery pots. This beats having winter end early or “on schedule” and having to wait four more weeks for your seedlings to be ready.

Because of the uncertainties, it’s important to be able to adjust the distance between your seedlings and their light source. The day a seedling sprouts, I want full-spectrum fluorescent light tubes (as in a four-foot long shop light) to be within three inches of the emerging leaves… and I want the light that close until I move the plants outdoors. This is wimpy light, so I leave it on twelve or more hours a day. Even in a dedicated sun room with perfect southern exposure, you should supplement with electric light. You’re asking plants to grow two months before they’d choose to in nature; give them every advantage you can.

Plant Seeds in Peat Pellets, the Video

In case you want more encouragement, I made a five-minute video to demonstrate how I plant seeds in a peat pellet. In the video, I plant a single pellet, but typically I’d soak a dozen or more pellets at once and set seeds in all of them. It’s impossible to start seeds any more easily and with less mess than you can with peat pellets. Please enjoy:

 

 

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8 Responses to “Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden”

  • All I can say is wow! Wish I’d had this information last year when I was using the peat pellets. This year I’m using the Jiffy green houses but using potting soil instead of peat pellets. I look forward to your next blog on this subject!

    Do you have suggestions about which seeds are best to start indoors (or greenhouse in my case) and which you can sow right into the gardening beds?

    You should be writing several gardening how to books!

    Carrie

  • Your post is very useful. Thanks.

  • [...] stores, please have a look at how I use them. I wrote about them enthusiastically in a post titlted Start Seeds in Pellets for your Small Kitchen Garden. If you’d rather try starting seeds in soil, read on; this post explains [...]

  • The peat pellet is a neat thing to have, but if you just want to DIY, no harm trying with plastic or used yogurt cups and some good quality dirt to start your seeds.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    John: Since I wrote this piece, I’ve decided peat pellets will no longer be part of my gardening strategy. This was one in a series of articles about starting seeds, and you’ll find other ideas here: Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden. This season (2011), I’m starting all my seeds in cut up milk jugs. I can start 25-36 seeds per jug, and they seem no worse for wear when I separate the seedlings and plant them in the garden.

  • Starting seeds this way is also ideal for those living in apartments, such as myself. I have now a big range of herbs, chillis, lime and also upside down tomatoes hanging out front the balcony (I use 1.5 litres soft drink bottles).

  • You should be writing several gardening how to books!

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Советы садоводам – You’re very kind.

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