Posts Tagged ‘start seeds’
One week old tomato seedlings grow under lights in my office. While I planted 16 seeds per container, some didn’t sprout. There are, perhaps, 70 going strong. To the right are pepper seedlings barely visible under their shop light. That light is so much closer to the plants because I lifted the fixture above the tomatoes to fit the camera under it for the photograph.
Sprouts are up! One hundred and six sprouts grace my seed-starting shelf. Most are tomato plants though about 24 are pepper plants and another 8 are lettuce.
I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b or 7a, depending on how you squint at the most recent map. While it felt more like zone 3 this winter, the temperature might have just brushed minus 5 – the minimum low to qualify as zone 6b. What was unusual is the cold hung on day-after-day; we had a six-week period during which it was a relief if the temperature spiked into the low 20s.
Even as the snow melted, we had cold. There’s a popular rule of thumb in our neighborhood: plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. I doubt many people succeeded. In fact, cold and rain continued until just two days ago, so anyone trying to plant peas would have been working in mud. I don’t expect to put anything in the garden for another three or four days, assuming we don’t see even more rain.
How I Start Seeds
I recently attended my first seed swap where a presenter recommended that home growers buy celled seed-starting trays. I no longer go that route. I’ve used peat pots pressed out in connected cells, I’ve used compressed peat pellets, and I’ve used old plastic drinking cups. I wrote about much of this some years ago in evergreen blog posts.
Here’s a setup I created with my dad last spring. He found a seven foot section of wire shelving. We marked 17 inches in from each end of the shelving, cut the reinforcement wire along the front edge, and bent the two 17-inch ends down to create a stand from which to hang a shop light. My dad has a cabinet in his living room where he sets up trays and pots in which to start tree seeds. With chains to suspend the shop light, it’s easy to adjust the fixture’s height as seedlings grow tall.
These days I cut up gallon plastic milk and orange juice jugs and use the bottoms as seed planters. In a milk jug, I set 16 seeds, and in an orange juice jug, I set 12 seeds. Sure, roots grow together as the seedlings get large, but teasing (gently tearing) them apart doesn’t seem to bother them too much.
When I set seeds, I create a paper tag to identify which varieties of plants are in a particular container (and where the varieties are). These I tape to the side of the container for quick reference. I refer to the tags when I set seedlings in the garden and make a map that shows where I plant each variety.
The easiest thing to overlook when you start seeds indoors is lighting. Don’t assume a south-facing window can provide enough light to produce healthy seedlings. Instead, get a fluorescent fixture with 850K spectrum tubes (see the box titled Don’t Buy Grow Lights). When you first plant seeds, suspend the light about 3 inches over the surface of the soil. As seedlings grow, raise the light to maintain a 3-inch separation from the tops of the plants.
To start tomato and pepper seeds, keep the room temperature above 70 degrees. Ideally, shoot for 80 degrees which, if you don’t want to turn up the heat, you can achieve by putting a heating pad under the seed pots. I’ve found in a 70 degree room, fluorescent lights parked 3 inches above my planters warm the soil adequately.
Starting seeds indoors is only mildly challenging. If you have space to set up a light and some makeshift planters, don’t buy a flat of seedlings that someone else has started. You can grow that!
I start seeds in planters I create by cutting the bottom halves off of gallon plastic milk jugs. I start a cut by pinching the milk jug between the tips of a scissors and squeezing hard. If the carton proves too tough, I can poke a hole through with one scissors tip. Then I cut around the container on a line parallel to the bottom of the jug.
I buy a bale of potting soil every three or four years from a local garden center. A bale is an enormous amount of soil—compressed to about half its “fluffed” volume. To use it, I wield a butter knife as an ice pick, stabbing one end of the bale repeatedly until a chunk comes loose. I crumble the chunk into a planter and smoosh up smaller lumps between my thumb and fingers.
Note that I don’t put drainage holes in the bottoms of my homemade planters. This forces me to pay extra attention to the moisture of the soil. Before I plant, I add what must be about a third of a gallon of water and leave the planter for 30 minutes or longer so the water soaks in. The soil should be moist on the surface but there shouldn’t be water sloshing around in the container. Note your potting soil might float when you first add water. Worse: some potting soils don’t absorb water without encouragement. If you have such potting soil, stir the water in or it might just pool on top.
I use a chopstick to create 16 indents in the soil of a planter; orange circles in the photo represent the layout. For tomato and pepper seeds, these can be just one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. I drop a single seed into each indentation and then gently nudge soil over the seeds. With all the seeds covered, I very gently tamp the soil down with the heel of my hand.
My labels aren’t pretty, but they work. This one reveals I have paste tomato seeds in the left two rows (for a total of 8), 3 Amana Orange tomato seeds at the back of the third row with one Tangerine Beefsteak seed in the front of that row, and a final full row of Tangerine Beefsteak seeds.
I may have to “pot up” the seedlings later which I do by gently tearing each one away from the root ball and then setting 8 into a milk-jug-derived planter. Of course, I create new labels for the new planters, and eventually I use those labels to inform a map I draw so I know where each variety ends up in the garden. I posted a video that shows the potting-up procedure when I made my seed-starting planters slightly differently… but the video is still relevant:
For nearly a month my small kitchen garden and all the land surrounding it has been covered in a four-inch thick iced-snow permafrost kind of thingy. There was snow, then there was rain, and then there was cold. For a while, the crust wouldn’t hold my dog’s weight and she was obviously distressed by it. Eventually, sunny but very cold days extended the crust through to the ground; we have been walking on ice.
Today, on the closing day of my seed giveaway, the temperature pushed above 40F degrees! That was enough to soften the ice cap all the way to the ground… and it was enough to bring the rabbits out of their holes. As Cocoa and I stepped out the door, we spotted one just beyond the blueberry scrubs at the edge of the yard.
Readying to Start Seeds in my Small Kitchen Garden
With rabbits out of their holes, it’s time for me to get my garden plans in line. I explained various seed-starting strategies and described my seed-starting shelf in a series of posts in February of 2010. For a thorough overview, visit each link listed in the box titled, Strategies for Starting Your Small Kitchen Garden… I’ve listed them in the order I posted them. Note that this year I’m not using peat pellets or peat pots on my seed-starting shelf.
What am I doing to prepare? I’ve four tasks:
1. Clear the seed-starting shelf—My larder is fuller this year than it was last year. That’s because I wrote a book about preserving garden produce, and I canned a lot more fruits and vegetables last year than I had in preceding years. So, with all the canned goods cluttering my shelves, it’ll take an hour or so to rearrange things and hang the light fixtures that will warm my planters and feed my seedlings.
2. Collect seed- starting containers—I’m done with peat pellets, and I’m done with peat pots. This year I’m doing all my seed starts in cut-up plastic milk jugs. Reasons 1: Peat pellets are simple and convenient for starting seeds, but not so good for sustaining seedlings. Once a seedling’s roots fill the pellet, you must transplant to the garden, “pot-up” the seedlings, or fertilize them to keep them healthy. Reason 2: To start seeds in any kind of pot, you need soil as well… so I have to buy soil; I can reduce expenses by not buying pots.
3. Ordering seeds—Yikes! I’m on the late side for this little task. In fact, I’ve heard some popular vegetable seeds are already hard to find. I’m looking for a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and for brands of broccoli and cauliflower that perform better than what I planted last year. I’m also very tempted to start artichokes indoors, move them outdoors in April, and see whether I can harvest a few by season’s end.
4. Well… buy seed-starting soil—I have some left from last year, and the nursery where I shop won’t open until mid-March, so no hurry on this one.
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.
Broccoli seedlings emerge within a few days of planting. In fact, the first time I planted broccoli seeds, I was astonished to see sprouts two days later. It’s kind of exciting to have a small garden spot in my house while snow lies on the land outside, but starting seeds indoors isn’t for everybody.
The ground is frozen and there are three inches of snow on my small kitchen garden, but I’ve already started to plant! Yes, I’m starting seeds indoors well ahead of spring. I didn’t used to do this, preferring, instead, to let someone else start seeds so I could buy flats of seedlings when the ground was ready.
Why not just Plant Seeds in the Garden?
No, really: sowing seeds directly in the garden is great gardening strategy. To do this, you need seeds and a little labor… it doesn’t get easier than that. However, if your seeds’ planting instructions proclaim plant after all danger of frost passes and 120 days to maturity, you’ll need four gorgeous months before you harvest your first vegetable. Plants that mature in 120 days usually have a lot more productive days after they mature… if there’s any growing season left.
In zone 5B last year, we had frost in late May. So, the frost-free season was just long enough to go from seeds to maturity. This really isn’t good enough. When you have such a limited season, starting seeds indoors early can significantly increase your yield.
It gets better! When you have a reasonably long growing season, starting seeds early lets you do two or even three plantings. I like to start peas, lettuce, and spinach from seed in the garden as soon as the soil thaws in March and April. These tend to expire in June, so I can plant winter squash in the same space. Were I to start these indoors from seeds, I could start harvesting lettuce and spinach within weeks of transplanting outdoors in March… and I’d probably be harvesting peas three or more weeks earlier than I usually do.
Of course, by finishing spring crops early, I create a longer season for summer crops, and that gives my fall crops a bit more time to grow before a deep freeze shuts down my garden in the fall. By starting seeds in containers, you can increase the variety of vegetables you grow in a particularly small kitchen garden, keeping your planting beds more productive throughout the growing season.
There’s not much growing on my seed starting shelf, but we’re still a few weeks early for most starts. I have four tomato seedlings that I’ve just transplanted from a single starting pellet into individual pots, four broccoli sprouts, and a bunch of planters in which I set seeds minutes before taking this photo. In about three weeks, the shelf will be crowded with tomato and pepper seedlings. Realizing I could manage seed starts on a shelf in my larder solved a lot of problems related to space and tidiness. Still, maintaining all of this will occupy fifteen or more minutes each day until I start transplanting seedlings into my small kitchen garden.
Starting Seeds is a Commitment
Starting seeds indoors can be seductive. It’s quite a rush to see the seedlings push out of the soil and stretch toward the lights. With many flats of seedlings on starting shelves, tables, counters, or windowsills, you create an inviting garden spot at a time when your yard and garden may be barren and uninviting.
But I encourage you not to get carried away. As I suggested earlier: you can buy flats of seedlings and get the same season-extending advantages you get from starting your own seeds. To provide a fair-and-balanced perspective, here are several reasons not to start your own seeds indoors:
1. You simply may not have the space. Last year, we couldn’t play ping-pong from March until May because someone (tee-hee) had taken over the ping-pong table to start seeds. After my mom died, my dad removed the cushions from the window seat in his living room and set up flats there to start seeds; it’s a bit awkward to have that mess in your living room when you’re hosting a formal dinner.
You don’t need a lot of space, but you need to be able to control the climate and lighting, to manage soil and water spills, and to keep your house pets off of your nascent seedlings.
2. Starting seeds is work. You’re not likely to wear yourself out with your seed starts, but you can’t rely on nature for success. Seed starting pots or peat pellets can easily dry out in 24 hours, so you’ll probably need to water once a day. You’ll also need to adjust your lighting as the seedlings grow, and you may end up having to transplant into larger pots if you can’t get your seedlings into the garden as quickly as you expect when you’re starting them.
3. You may have saved lousy seeds. Especially if you harvested seeds from hybrid varieties of produce (Burpee loves to sell hybrids), the plants that emerge from them may develop fruits or vegetables distinctively different from the parent fruits or vegetables. Heirlooms are more likely to breed true, but insects may cross-pollinate your heirlooms with other varieties, and the resulting seeds also can produce unexpected results.
Freshly-transplanted seedlings languish for a week or two before they start growing again. These look a little sad because I transplanted them just a few days ago. I expect they’ll perk up soon, and put out some new leaves. I planted these seeds very early to test the viability of seeds I’d harvested from last year’s tomatoes. I gave away bunches of seeds, and I wanted to be confident they’d sprout for their recipients. Once I start a plant growing, I find it very difficult to let it die… or worse, to kill it
4. You can bury yourself in seedlings. If you have enough room to start dozens of flats, consider the eventual disposition of your young plants: You will some day transplant them into your garden. This could become more work than it’s worth. Sowing seeds directly in your planting beds is far easier than setting seedlings. So, unless you really need the extra growing time, you might be happier simply sowing seeds. If you want some early lettuce and spinach, start a dozen or so seeds indoors, but save the rest to sow outdoors for a slightly later 2nd harvest. I can’t imagine starting the several hundred pea plants I grow each year and transplanting them later.
Which Plants should you Start Indoors?
Don’t let anyone tell you which plants you must start indoors. Just about any vegetable is fair game… though I’d encourage you to start all root crops in your garden; transplanting may damage the roots enough that they might produce no usable food.
I’m too lazy to start fast-growing cool weather crops indoors. These don’t live long anyway, and I can wait the additional two or three weeks before I start harvesting greens. Still, I remember having fresh garden salad at a friend’s house one March about when lettuce seeds were just sprouting in my garden. My friend had planted from store-bought flats the moment she could work the soil. Compelling.
Of the plants I grow routinely, I start tomatoes, peppers, and squash indoors because they need a long growing season. Most of us eat peppers before they ripen, but if you want red peppers, you need to give them 100 or more days to develop (Once you pick a green pepper, it just won’t turn red.)
This year, I’m also starting broccoli and cauliflower indoors. These won’t mind a heavy frost, so I can set seedlings in the garden when I’m planting lettuce and spinach in March or early April. Broccoli especially can produce all season, but I expect I’ll lose interest in the plants in June so I’ll replace them then with bush beans (sown directly in the garden) that mature very quickly.
I’d like to have one of these in my yard. It’s a commercial greenhouse about three miles from my home, and they’ve laid out row upon row of flower seedlings. Seems like a waste of resources as I’m sure no one will be eating these plants. Still, in a few weeks there’ll be vegetable and fruit starts on many of the benches here.
So many kitchen gardeners in the northern hemisphere are seriously into this year’s growing season. Southerners may already be sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings outdoors—or even harvesting mature vegetables (I know this because so much fresh produce in our grocery stores has flown in from southern California). Northerners are starting to plant seeds indoors.
I encourage new kitchen gardeners to sow seeds directly in their planting beds except for crops that require long growing seasons. For those, I suggest buying seedlings from garden stores and nurseries. Why? Because it’s easy. There’s no sense in making gardening hard when you’re just getting started.
While I encourage you to buy seedlings, it’s important to know that buying flats from a garden store isn’t a panacea. Now, six to eight weeks before you’d buy those flats, is the time to decide whether you’re going to. If you’d rather start your own seeds, you’ll need to do so soon… perhaps within the next two to three weeks.
Some Good Reasons not to buy Seedlings
There are many downsides to buying seedlings in a garden store. Here are several:
1. Your options tend to be limited. A decent garden store may carry a dozen types of tomato seedlings—mostly, hardy hybrids. You may find three or four dozen varieties of tomato seeds at an online garden store. These could include the hardy hybrids, but they’ll also include heirloom tomatoes you’ll never get to taste if you don’t grow them yourself.
2. Nursery plants may be stressed. Nurseries face one overwhelming challenge: they can only guess when to plant seeds. If they guess wrong, their seedlings could be pot-bound and “leggy” by the time anyone wants to plant. For tomatoes, this isn’t really a problem. But many vegetables grow weak stems in the garden when you transplant them from overcrowded nursery pots or flats.
3. Seedlings are pricey. For a four-pack of six-week-old plants, you could pay $3, $4, $5, or more. For a decent seed-starting kit that could start 36, 72, or even 144 plants from seeds, you might pay $4 to $6. A few packages of seeds might cost another 4$ to $6. So, for $12 and minimal effort, you can start nearly 150 plants worth, conservatively, 75 cents apiece.
4. You harvested seeds last year. Harvesting seeds is amazingly satisfying: it provides a sense of continuity from one year to the next. What’s more, if you save seeds from last season’s crop, you don’t have to buy new seeds this season. I’m starting tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and several types of squash from seeds that grew in my small kitchen garden last year.
A garden center may not have facilities to “pot up” seedlings when the last frost is slow in coming. You may find tall, pot-bound plants are your only option when you choose commercial seedlings.
5. Nurseries may sell you trouble. In 2009, late blight destroyed gardens all over the northeastern United States. Disturbingly, the news media reported that late blight was present on tomato seedlings sold in garden departments of big-box stores. This was an unusual occurrence, but it illustrates true risk: when you buy seedlings, you can’t be sure whether they carry diseases or malicious insects.
6. It may be challenging to go organic. If it’s important to you to maintain a strictly organic regimen, you might not find appropriate seedlings at a garden center. Commercial growers may choose potting mixes that include slow-release fertilizers and other non-organic additives. Also, most commercial suppliers aren’t concerned about whether the seeds they start originate from suppliers who produce them organically. If you want to start from flats of organically-grown seedlings, call around now to be sure you’ll be able to buy them when you’re ready to plant.
Still, Commercial Seedlings Rock
For all but one of my gardening years, I bought flats of tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower at garden stores. I had a lot of reasons for this and I’ll share them in my next post. In all the years I bought flats, I was never disappointed: broccoli is broccoli, cauliflower is cauliflower, tomatoes are… well, no. The main reason I thought to start seeds myself was a feeling of deja vu I got each spring when selecting from five varieties of beefsteaks. Last year was the first season I started my own seeds indoors and I’ll never go back.
If you’re planning to buy seedlings this season, do a little research now: locate gardening centers or nurseries in your area and ask whether they start their flats from seeds. If they don’t, at least try to find a store that buys seedlings from a local grower. The farther your baby plants have travelled on their way to your small kitchen garden, the more opportunity they’ve had to develop problems.
A few articles that mention flats of vegetables:
- friday fill in #124. – 7. and as for the weekend, tonight i’m looking forward to going to the garden center with ms 12 & mr 9 to get our vegetable flats & maybe planting some of them – weather permitting, supposed to be scattered showers all weekend! tomorrow …
- Vegetable flats behind our garage store | This Week – Here we see about 1/5 of this season’s vegetable flats as they’re getting ready to go out into beds for this summer. We seed flats continuously, and plant on a rotating basis to keep plenty of vegetables growing …
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.
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.
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: