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Friday, January 22, 2016

"RTFSP" & 14 Other Seed Starting Tips

It's that time of year again: SEED STARTING TIME!

I love seed starting time because it reminds me that although the days are still short, and the snow is still on the ground, spring is coming.  It's such a miracle that a tiny thing like a seed can grow into a beautiful, productive plant in one season!

Here are some of my seed starting tips.  I hope you find them useful.

1. RTFSP!!!!!  You've heard of "RTFM" ("read the freakin' manual"), right?  Well this is "Read the freakin' seed packet!!" Seed packets generally provide most if not all of the information that you need to start any given seed. This includes: when to plant the seed, how deep to plant the seed, whether to start indoors or outdoors, etc.  For the few seed packets that do not have directions, you can always google the type of seed and find directions on how to plant it on the internet. You can also use the nifty app that I found created by the folks at Mother Earth Magazine to figure out when to plant: When to Plant App.  This information is vital!  Do not ignore it!

2. Know your growing zone and last frost date.  Most seed packets will recommend when to plant based on what zone you are in. They also instruct you as to when to plant seed outdoors or set the seedling out based on whether the danger of frost is past or not. Therefore, you need to know your USDA zone and last frost date.  If you don't know these, click here: USDA zone and Frost Dates.

3. Fresh seeds germinate better.  If you have some seed packets that have been laying around for 2-3 years, by all means, go ahead and try to plant them. Just be aware that fewer of these seeds (or possibly none) will germinate. Most seeds expire entirely by year 4-5.  Fresh seeds harvested during the last growing season are more likely to germinate well.

4. Do not spread seeds to thickly.  Try to spread the seeds evenly and so there are a centimeter or two of space between them. This will allow enough space for the seedlings to grow and will reduce the number that you need to dispose of later when you thin them out.

This can be difficult with small seeds because they are difficult to see.  There are several ways to alleviate this problem:
    i. Place the seeds in a salt shaker, then sprinkle them over the surface the soil.
    ii. Mix the seeds in with a small amount of sand so that you can see where you are spreading the seed over the soil more easily.
   iii. Place the seeds into the fold of a creased piece of paper and use a pencil or chopstick to push them off the edge of the paper and into the growing medium one or two at a time.

5. Use a grow light. The photo below was taken at 7am on January 21 in zone 5b, Michigan. As you can see from the window, it is still dark out. Most flower & vegetable seedlings need around 12 hours of direct light to grow well.
7am in Brighton, Michigan - Still Dark Outside

If you live in the North, even your brightest window cannot provide enough light in the winter.  The days are simply too short. You can still try to plant the seedlings without a grow light, but they are likely to be "leggy," i.e. tall, scrawny and weak.  If you must start seeds without a light, use a South facing, bright window, and I wouldn't even bother starting them until at least March in order to have a chance for the plants to get enough sun.

Grow lights range widely in price. You can get full spectrum light bulbs from a big box store that may only cost you a couple of bucks and can be plugged in to a clamp lamp that may only cost you around $10.  You can purchase a stand with a light like I show in the picture for around $50.  There are several DIY you tube clips that show how to build your own stand from PVC pipe that may cost you around $30 or so to make -- less if you already have scrap PVC available.  So, please do not be deterred if you Google "grow light" and find units that cost a couple hundred dollars. You don't need those for vegetable seedlings... those are more for growing plants of either a tropical or illegal nature.

6.  Use seed starting medium.  Seeds may start in regular potting soil or soil from your garden, but generally they don't root well have a higher risk "dampening off" or rotting.  Seed starting medium drains better and allows for better root production. As plants become larger, you can transplant them into larger pots containing a more nutrient-dense potting soil.

You can buy ready-made seed starting mix at any big box store.  According to the American Horticultural Society Plant Propagation book, you can also mix your own by combining: "3 parts peat, 1 part fine bark, 1 part perlite.  To each 8 gallons (36L) add 1 1/4 oz (36g) of slow-release fertilizer and 1 1/4oz (36g) of dolomitic limestone."

7. Water gently.  If you run your seeds under a tap or water them with a standard watering can, you are likely to wash the seeds away.  Instead, soak your seed starting mix ahead of time so that is damp like a wrung out sponge and plant into that without watering after.

When the seed mix dries out with time, water it with either a spray bottle or make your own gentle watering can by hammering some holes into the lid of an old plastic bottle using a pin or needle. (Do not use a nail, that will make holes that are too large.)  You simply squeeze the water-filled bottle gently to create a fine spray of water for the seedlings.  Easy!

Be careful not to over water.  Although seeds need to be kept slightly damp to germinate, over-watering can lead to mold growth and/or dampening off (seedling death).  The planting medium should never be wetter than a wrung out sponge. 

8. Temperature matters. Most common vegetable seeds will germinate between 65-75F or at room temperature.  A few will need cooler or warmer temperature. Some even need to be left in your freezer for a number of weeks before they will germinate. RTFSP!! Your seed packet will tell you what temperature the seeds need to germinate!

If your house is too cool for the seeds to germinate, you can buy a seed heating mat.  These can be found on or at various seed companies.  I personally do not use these as they are expensive. Instead, I purchased a personal heating pad at my local drug store (the kind you use when you have a sore back).  These have the disadvantage of being shorter than most seed trays. But they tend to be less expensive and also have a safety feature where they turn off automatically if they get too hot.  This helps relieve my concern over potentially burning the house down. Both options are relatively water proof (but do not submerge them in water - danger danger!!)

9. Label your plants. I know, you have a great memory, right? Believe me, you'll forget which pepper was which by the time May rolls around. So label your plants! I suggest using popsicle sticks as labels. They are cheap, you can buy 500 at a time, and you can compost them when you are finished with them. 

10. Pet your plants.  When your seedlings emerge, remember to pet or tickle them. This is not only fun, but imitates the wind and helps the stems to toughen up. Alternately, you can run a small fan next to them, but that uses more electricity and isn't as fun!

 11. Be patient.  Some seeds take only a few days to sprout.  Some take weeks. Others, a few months. (See tip #1 above.)

12. Only plant what you like.  There is no point in planting beets if you hate the flavor of them.  There is no point planting marigolds if you hate the color orange.  Most of us have either limited space to grow, and/or limited time in which to care for plants.  Use your time and space wisely by growing only the plants that you will use and/or love. 

13. Try a new seed type (or several) every year. There are so many types and varieties of plants out there, and seeds are inexpensive. It is fun to try new varieties to see how well they grow for you, how they taste, or how they differ in appearance. Go for it!

14. Do not fret if seeds or plants do not grow.  Again, seeds are cheap.  If you buy a potted plant at the nursery and it dies, you are out $10-$200.  But even if every seed in a packet dies, you are only out $0.30- $5.00.  So no worries there. Also, plants vary in their climate needs, the freshness of seed, water requirements etc.  If they don't grow, it may have nothing to do with you or your skill.  They just may not like your window, or your climate. So do not decide that you have a "black thumb" based on one packet of seed or even several! Keep trying. Keep learning to improve your growing knowledge.  Some plants will grow. Some will die.  Most will grow. They "want" to live every bit as much as you do!

15. HAVE FUN! :) 
Later in the season, I will post a bit more about prepping your seedling for planting in the garden.  This includes: re-potting the seedlings into larger pots, hardening them off and planting them out. So please keep reading the blog!



Note: I make no claims as to whether one company is better than another.  These are simply the companies where I found my seed this year. 

Terroir Seeds
Ferry-Morse (sold at most big-box stores)
Burpee (sold at most big-box stores)
Dollar Seed
Hart Seed Company (sold at most big-box stores)
Nichols Garden Nursery 
Botanical Interests 

2 Bonus Tips: Organize your seeds by the month you wish to plant them in an old shoebox.  Use note cards to separate them by month. Throw a pencil and some popsicle sticks in the box too so that you remember to label your seeds.


For those of you who really want to nerd-out, or who need a new idea, here is a list of what I am growing this year and when I plan to start the seed for you to read:


Hot peppers: Ancho, Hungarian Sweet, Anaheim, Jalapeno, Orange Scotch, Cayenne

Alliums: American Flag Leeks, Garlic Chives, Common Chives, Golden Grande Onion, Red Burgundy Onion, Sweet Spanish Onion

Flowers: Coconut Geranium, Cherry Pie Heliotrope


Herbs: Costmary, Lime Balm, Fennel

Tomatoes: Box Car Willie, Ace 55, Yellow Plum, Great White, Beefsteak, Roma, Small Red Cherry

Flowers: Evening-Scented Stock, Pot Marigolds, Sweet Peas, Lobelia 'crystal palace', Blue Pimpernel,

Celeric Giant Prague

Vegetables: Pepper Sweet California Wonder, Victoria Rhubarb


Eggplants: Black Beauty, Burpee's Garden Blend

Flowers: Cosmidium Brunete (Chocolate Cosmos), Forget Me Not, Chicory

Herbs: Summer Savory, Winter Savory, Parsley, Cinnamon Basil, Sweet Basil, Fenugreek, Caraway

Brassicas: Kale Blue Vates Scotch, Cauliflower Early Snowball, Broccoli Waltham 29


Flowers: Nasturtiums, Larkspur, Lewis Flax, Flanders Poppy, Columbine Rocky Mountain Blue, Showy Milkweed

Greens: Green Cabbage, Taipai Red Cabbage, Red Acre Cabbage, Corn Mache

Herbs: Chinese Celery, Borage

Root Vegetables: Parsley Hamburg or Turnip Rooted, Rutabaga American Purple Top Yellow, Carrot Danvers 126, Carrot Burpee Kaleidoscope Blend, Seven Top Turnip


Herbs: Common Comfrey, Anise

Flowers: Love in a Mist

Vegetables: Peas Alaska,  Endive Green Curled Ruffec

AFTER MAY 16 (last frost) OUTDOORS

 Flowers: Bachelor Button Blue Boy, Morning Glory Heavenly Blue, Wild Flax Saphyr, Sunflower Italian White, Lupoine Texas Bluebonnet

Greens: Shiso Red, Spinach New Zealand, Swiss Chard Bright Lights, Lettuce Giant Caesar, Lettuce Crisphead Great Lakes

Vegetables: Radish Cherry Belle, Bush Bean Golden Wax

Squash: Acorn, Spaghetti, Buttercup, Butternut, Pumpkin Early Sugar Pie


Grains: Sweet Corn Trinity Hybrid, Sweet Corn Silver Queen

Vegetables: Bush Bean Goldrush, Cucumber Lemon, Cucumber Marketmore, Okra Burgandy,

Squash: Zucchini Black Beauty,  Cocozelle, Yellow Early Prolific Straight Neck, Luffa

Watermelon: Crimson Sweet, Sugar Baby

Herbs: Dill Fern Leaf


Hard Neck Garlic

Wild Leeks

Common Chives

Note: I will likely do another planting in mid-summer and/or inter-plant crops throughout the summer. I will try to post about these plants as I grow them.

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