Starting seeds for your small kitchen garden requires very little space. I can start more than 300 seedlings on a single shelf that happens to be in my larder. These cauliflower seedlings sprouted in about three days and are thriving two inches beneath full-spectrum fluorescent tubes. In about a week I’ll move the seedlings outdoors for a week, and then I’ll plant them in my garden.
In recent posts, I’ve explored reasons why a kitchen gardener might choose to start seedlings indoors, or buy seedlings from a garden store or nursery. Assuming you’ve decided to start your own seedlings for your small kitchen garden, let’s take one more look at how to go about it.
If you want to use those seed-starting peat pellets that seem so omnipresent in department and gardening 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 how.
My family drinks a gallon of milk every day so I’m always looking for uses for empty milk jugs. To reduce spills on my seed-starting shelf, I create shallow pans by cutting the sides out of the jugs. (I use a utility knife, but sturdy scissors will do the job nicely.) One of these pans handles a six-nursery-pot flat as you can see in this post’s first illustration.
Seed Starting Containers
Starting seeds indoors in soil is very similar to sowing seeds outdoors directly in a planting bed. How you’ll use the seedlings may influence what types of containers you choose as planters. For example, if you’re growing seedlings for a container garden, you could start them in the planters they’ll occupy through the entire growing season. You can move them outdoors on warm days in late winter and early spring, and move them back indoors when frost is in the forecast.
However, to get the most out of limited seed-starting space, it makes sense to start seeds in small pots or nursery flats. I prefer flats made out of pressed peat moss or brown cardboard. These typically come in 10-cell units, and you can easily cut them or tear them apart into smaller sets.
I like to plant two seeds in each cell of a flat, but if you want to keep things simple, plant just one. If you’re tough-hearted, plant two seeds and cut off or gently pull one plant if two emerge from the soil. Sometimes seeds don’t sprout, so you increase your chances of getting one per pot if you plant two seeds.
I separated a flat of ten nursery pots into flats of four and six pots. I set the six-pot flat into a pan made from a gallon milk jug, filled the individual pots with commercial potting soil, and added water. I like to water before I set seeds because watering can disturb the seeds and even wash them out of the pots. To plant, I use the point of a chopstick to poke depressions in opposite corners of each pot; two depressions per pot. The depth of the depressions depends on planting instructions on the seed packets. I drop one seed into each depression and I smooth the soil over, tamping it down a bit to make sure it comes in contact with the seeds.
Cauliflower and broccoli seeds are small, but I can usually pick up one at a time with my fingers and drop it where I want it. If you have trouble working tiny seeds with your finger tips, use tweezers… but be gentle so you don’t crush your seeds.
Super Budget Starters
While flats and peat pellets provide tidy organization for your seedlings, plants don’t require individual pots to get a good start. As I explain in the photo captions of this article, I start two plants in each sprouting pot and then separate the seedlings when I transplant them into the garden or into larger pots. Many folks start a dozen or more seeds in a single tray—a baking dish or food-storage container, for example—and dig up the seedlings to transplant them later.
I like gallon milk jugs for this. You can make a seed-starting planter using the bottom section of a jug, or by using a section that includes the flat side of a jug (see photos).
I started planting two seedlings per pot figuring it improved my chances of getting a seedling in every planter. If two sprouted, I’d cut one away and let the other mature. When two sprouted in every pot I planted, I didn’t have the heart to kill the runts. So, when I took them to my garden, I gently tore the pots apart and planted the seedlings separately. My point: seedlings won’t care if you plant two dozen seeds per container. You can fit a lot more in less space when you do this… but make sure you use a big enough container that you’ll be able to separate the seedlings later. Here I cut the bottom off a milk jug, and the side off a milk jug to create two seed-starting planters. I might start twenty seeds in the smaller planter and thirty or more in the larger one.
Should you poke drainage holes in the bottoms of these milk carton seed-starting trays? I don’t. I check on my seed starts at least once a day. I can tell whether the soil is damp, and I add only enough water to keep it that way without flooding my planters. If you find it challenging to judge how damp the soil is, perhaps you should add drainage holes… but make sure that you also place platters or pans under the planters to capture leaks.
Soil for your Seeds
You can use soil from your planting beds to start seeds, but I suggest buying potting soil or seed-starting mix. Why? Three reasons:
Some potting soils are so poorly formulated that they actually repel water. You can make a depression in such soils, fill the depression with water, and the water will evaporate without ever soaking in. If the soil you buy is like this, pour what you’ll use into a bucket, add water, and stir until the soil is all damp. Use this moistened soil to fill your pots, and as long as you keep the soil moist it should absorb water adequately.
1. Potting mix is likely to be free of viable seeds, roots, and tubers. Soil from your garden may host any or all of these, and you could end up growing a lot more than what you intend.
2. Potting mix is likely to be free of molds, fungus, and bacteria. Garden soil may harbor all these nuisances, and infect your seedlings. Planting seeds in commercial potting soil gives your seedlings time to grow strong before they have to deal with microbial challenges.
3. Unless you brought several gallons of garden soil inside last autumn, you might not be able to dig any out of the garden until after an appropriate planting date for your seeds. When I should be starting cold weather crops (brassicas, peas, lettuce, and spinach) indoors, my garden is usually frozen and buried in snow.
Once you’ve Planted Seeds
Your newly-planted seeds need moisture and warmth. Immediately upon sprouting, the seedlings also need light… not just sunlight from a south-facing window, but some kind of supplemental lighting to assure the plants don’t grow spindly and weak. I explained these issues in a post called Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf. What I’ve learned since writing that post is that the fluorescent light fixtures produce enough warmth that my shelf is about 75F degrees even though the rest of the room runs about 60F degrees.