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
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.
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:
Arzeena is an agronomist and gardenwriter
for Organic Living Newsletter.