Thursday, March 4, 2010

Seed Starting

Starting plants from seed has practical benefits: saving money; getting a head start on the growing season; and choosing from among the many tantalizing varieties found in seed catalogs. You will also experience the wonder of  watching a dormant seed sprout into a living, edible plant. Once you try it, you will find that it's much simpler and more exciting than you may think. 

Timing is key. Find out the average date of the last frost in your area. The published last frost date in our area (zone 6a - 7) is April 15th; however I like to use Mother's Day, just to be safe.  Each seed will have a different start date, though most should be started 6-8 weeks early. Some plants, such as onions, parsley, cilantro, peppers, and eggplants need a little more time. Various internet sources, as well as the Virginia Cooperative Extension office, can give you guidance on when to start seeds. The seed packet itself is often a font of information. 

Seeds should be started in a sterile medium. Buy a commercial seed starting mix, or make your own with equal parts of vermiculite, milled sphagnum moss, and perlite. Moisten the mix until it clumps in your hand, but isn't runny or crumbly. Containers for seed starting should be 2 1/2 - 3 inches tall. Use commercial seed starting containers or recycled household items like milk cartons, yogurt cups, or aluminum pans. Make sure your container has drainage holes. Fill your container almost to the top with the sterile seed starting medium.  Scatter small seeds evenly over the surface and cover them with a sprinkling of vermiculite. Larger seeds can buried at a depth of about 2-3 times the size of the seed. Be sure to label your seedlings, as many young plants are indistinguishable. Loosely cover seedling trays with plastic wrap or moist newspaper, making sure there is some air ventilation. Use a spray bottle to water lightly when the soil appears dry. 
The recommended soil temperature range for most seeds started indoors is 75 degrees F to 90 degrees F. If you don't have a location with a consistent temperature, you can purchase a heat mat made specifically for this purpose. After germination, slightly cooler temperatures are better. Most seeds do not need light to germinate, but as soon as they sprout, they need 12-14 hours of direct light. A full spectrum or florescent bulb works best. A sunny window may not be sufficient. 

As soon as the seedlings develop their first true set of leaves, they should be thinned and transplanted into a larger pot with a more nutrient rich soil. I like to line a plastic seedling tray with newspaper and vermiculite, then make my own transplant "containers" by wrapping 4 inch strips of newspaper around a small cylinder and taping it together to form a pot. These can then be planted directly into the ground, since the newspaper will decompose. 

At least one week before planting in the garden, harden off the plants by placing them outdoors for an hour or two each day. Gradually increase the time that they spend outdoors, making sure they are protected from too much wind and sun. Check the moisture level of the plants and moisten as necessary. Once they are hardened off, plant the seedlings to the garden on a cloudy day to minimize transplant shock.


  1. Yikes. There is more to this than I would have ever thought. Perhaps we'll just come over and enjoy your garden.

  2. Ooh a comment!!!
    Come on over. You'll see that it's a labor of love.
    The community garden idea is not off the table, but it may be on the chopping block. The Extension Office did not fare well in the county budget.