Browsing through the numerous seed catalogs received entices us to buy seeds and start them ourselves. With an over abundance of plants available in garden centers, why would we want to start our own?
I have several reasons why I do. It is less expensive as plants seem to get more costly each year. If I chose a certain variety, it might not be available in stores and you can be assured of high quality plants. Lastly, it is just the satisfaction of watching something grow.
Starting seeds in your home involves some expense if you want to be successful. To start, you need containers or flats. I save mine from year to year and use them over and over. Plastic trays are inexpensive and can be used over and over. The covering or plastic domes can also be saved for another season.
If you choose peat pots for starting, they need to be filled with a starting medium that has been sterilized to prevent disease. Usually it is a soil-less mix. Seedlings need fertilizing with a weak water soluble fertilizer until planted in the garden. I prefer starting seeds with Jiffy-7s, a peat wafer that expands in water. This year, they have extra depth wafers which gives roots a little more growing space.
Soak the wafers in water, place in them in a tray, and plant seeds in the top at the depth recommended on the seed packet. Cover with a plastic dome or clear plastic and provide bottom heat. This covering keeps the seeds moist enough without drying for proper germination. There are heat mats available, but very expensive. I use heating pads set on low. I have never had success with seed germination unless this bottom heat is provided. They will come up evenly and quick.
Always thoroughly soak the planting medium with water, preferably warm, before seeding
As soon as seedlings emerge, they must have bright light. This can be a south facing window or artificial lighting. Lights are preferred as they can be controlled. There are Gro-Lites available that are made especially for plants but are expensive. Gro-Lites are color-balanced for healthy growth. There has been research that say common fluorescent bulbs can be used if you use one warm and one cool bulb.
Most plants will require high intensity light about 14 hours a day. Bulbs can be put on a timer. Keep the plants close to the lights, about three inches away and moved upward as plants grow. Rearrange the flats to keep the seedlings evenly lit as bulbs emit more light in the center.
Water consistently, but do not over water. If you water with chlorinated water, set aside a jug to allow a day for chlorine to evaporate. It is not advisable to use water from a water softener. These tiny plants also prefer water at room temperature.
If you plant more than one seed to a pot or wafer, which is preferable, do not pull the extra seedling. Cut it off.
I remember when “damping off” was a plague for starting your own plants. The cause of this was usually disease in the soil. With purchased soil and or wafers, the medium is sterilized and there should be no problem. Always be sure when you water the soil is wet thoroughly, but do not leave any standing water in the seed tray.
Starting dates are given on the back of the seed packet. Time is usually stated as days before the last frost in your area. Our last day of predicted frost is the middle of May.
Betty Winscher is a Master Gardener Emeritus and can be reached at (320) 584-8077 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.