Prepare for Seed Starting

Prepare for Seed Starting

Prepare for Seed Starting

by Arzeena Hamir

How do you satisfy the gardening itch

in the middle of winter? Easily! Start plants from seed.

Now is a great time to get a jumpstart on the gardening

season. Just a little preparation will help ensure you

seed starting success. Here is some of the equipment

you’ll need:


Almost any type of container can be used

to start your seedlings in, as long as it can hold moisture

and is sturdy enough to handle a wet potting mix. Gardeners

have always recycled yogurt & cottage cheese containers,

milk cartons, & even egg cartons. Whatever container

you use, make sure that it has a hole through which

excess water can drain or is porous and will eventually

drain. Any sitting water at the bottom of a container

can rob growing roots of oxygen and encourage fungal


Before filling your container with potting

mix, wash it well to get rid of any food particles.

This is especially important for containers that are

reused year after year. Certain fungal diseases, such

as Fusarium, can be spread through contaminated soil

that is still hanging on to the sides of containers.

If your seedlings succumbed to any diseases last year,

make sure the containers are rinsed with a 10% solution

of bleach to kill off any remaining spores.

Soil Mix

One of the most important factors when

starting your seedlings is choosing your potting mix.

It is often recommended to use a sterilized, soil-free

starter mix to prevent diseases such as damping-off

from taking hold of tender seedlings. I still recommend

soil-less mixes to beginner gardeners but I, myself,

have started to add compost and worm casts to my own

mix. Here are a few reasons why:

First, soil-less mixes are totally free

of any nutrients whatsoever. While young seedlings don’t

require fertilizers until they develop their first set

of true leaves, I find having to feed them solely through

a liquid feed quite cumbersome. Organic fertilizers

like compost and worm casts release their nutrients

slowly and don’t burn seedlings the way inorganic fertilizers

may. Having these fertilizers already in the potting

mix means I don’t have to worry about feeding for at

least 5-6 weeks. By then, I’m usually potting up the

seedlings and adding fresh fertilizer anyway.

Second, I have found that growing seedlings

with organic fertilizers in the mix tends to produce

healthier seedlings. The organic fertilizers help to

mimic conditions in the garden where there is a multitude

of fungi, bacteria and other soil organisms. Seedlings

have to extract nutrients from the organic fertilizers

just the way they would in garden soil. In contrast,

I find that seedlings fed solely with liquid fertilizers

tend to be less efficient at extracting nutrients since

the liquid feeds provide them in a highly soluble form.

Third, the organic fertilizers help the

soil mix hold moisture for longer periods of time. Most

soil-less mixes are a combination of peat, perlite &

vermiculite and drain very quickly. They require frequent

watering, especially when seedlings grow their first

set of true leaves and really begin to transpire. Both

compost and worm casts retain moisture well and keep

it available for growing roots.

Lastly, adding organic material into the

potting mix helps to stretch the mix and make it go

farther. This can be quite a cost savings, especially

if your make your own compost or raise worms yourself.

One word of caution about adding organic

fertilizers to your potting mix – remember that they

will contain a wide variety of soil organisms and your

soil mix will not longer be sterile. If you’ve had a

problem with damping-off in the past, i.e. you tend

to overwater your seedlings, you may want to only water

your seedlings from the bottom or else stay with a sterile



Have you ever tried starting seeds inside

on a windowsill and found that they grew spindly and

kept falling over? Early spring light just doesn’t have

the intensity and duration that young seedlings need,

forcing them to stretch for more and more light. Most

seedlings require 12-14 hours of direct light in order

to keep them short and stocky and producing healthy

leaves. Therefore, artificial lights are required early

in the season.

Although you can purchase grow lights

in your local nursery or garden center, I find a combination

of warm and cool fluorescent bulbs just as effective

at a fraction of the cost. Since seedlings need high

light intensity, these bulbs need to be no more than

3-4 inches away from the top of the plant. I attach

the light ballast to the underside of a shelf or even

the underside of a table and place my seedling trays

under the tubes. If the lights are still too far away,

you can also raise the trays on boxes. As the plants

grow, the boxes can be removed so that the leaves do

not touch the bulbs.


Last but not least, gather your seeds

together and select what you’re going to grow this year

and how much of each variety. If you have left over

seed from previous seasons and are not sure if the seed

is still viable, do a quick & easy germination test

between moist paper towel to see if the seeds sprout.

Plant any seeds that do germinate and discard any mould.

If you’re really itching to do some kind

of gardening now, you can start the following types

of seed indoors near the end of January/early February:





Giant Onion




Perennial Alyssum


Arzeena is an agronomist and gardenwriter

for Organic Living Newsletter.

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