This was the view out my back door on Wednesday March 9th.

Seriously?!

Thankfully, we spent the weekend getting a seed starting area ready to go in the house. We repurposed a wire rack, purchased a couple of shop lights (to add to the two I already had) for about $10 each, scrounged a few “S” hooks and chain, and were ready to go.

Grow grow grow! Total started? 378. Thankfully, some will be able to go outside BEFORE the last frost.

Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers like high heat (around 70 degrees) in order to sprout. Peppers in particular, are really picky about this. My house, because it is over 100 years old, is mostly heated by a pellet stove, and with all the heat turned off at night, is usually between 50 and 55 degrees in the morning when I get up. So an old heating pad (circa 1970’s – not kidding) set on low takes up residence underneath this nifty seed starting tray (below). I coveted this tray for years before finally ordering it from Lee Valley a few years ago. I’m sure OSHA would NOT approve.

A great little seed starter that sits on a capillary (wicking) mat to keep seedlings evenly moist.

Because I did not grow a garden last year, other than a few herbs, some green beans, and one late and lonely tomato plant that never got ripe, I have been especially looking forward to growing things this year. My garden this year will supply produce not just for my family, but for a farmers market. This is the best excuse ever to plant a lot of seeds, including 36 tomato plants, 30 pepper plants, and a whole lot of herbs, flowers and other veggies. I’m also trying to “grow out” some seed that I’ve had for an embarrassingly long time, like Dianthus flower seed from 2002!

Ten different kinds of tomatoes, most of them short season determinates (mature quickly and mostly all at once). That’s an 84 plug flat in the back, but you have to transplant the resulting seedlings fairly quickly as the plugs are small. Great when you have a lot of old flower seed that you aren’t sure is going to germinate.

And now, I do what every gardener has done since time immortal. I peer closely at the soil a couple of times a day waiting for that first small sign of green!

A Few Indoor Seed Starting Tips:

Buying a special seed starting medium really is a good idea. It helps ensure that 1) the soil holds moisture well while the seeds are trying to sprout and 2) those fragile first roots can push their way through the light fluffy soil to get a good start. If you can’t afford to buy a seed starting mix, use an old wire colander to sift your own soil to remove any big chunks of rock or organic matter.

While you want the soil to be firmly in place with no air pockets, you don’t want to tamp it down to a brick. Plant roots need air as well as water to grow. Try not to over compress your soil (this is true in your garden as well, which is why keeping your garden beds and walkways separate is a good idea).

I get my soil wet first, then use an old chopstick  to make holes in the soil and plant the seeds. Small seeds will stick to the damp chopstick and release into the soil, making planting small seeds a breeze. I pretty much ignore the seed starting guidelines on the package (1/8 inch soil to cover, who are they kidding…) and go by this rule: Cover the seeds with about the depth of soil as the seed is big. So very fine seeds like alyssum can literally be sprinkled on the surface of roughed up soil and then just pressed down lightly with your finger and that is enough. This trick is also helpful if you are a wild seed collector and want to try starting “wild” seeds inside. Pepper seeds are somewhat the exception. They seem to need that journey pushing up through the soil in order to remove their seed shell. Otherwise, it sometimes sticks and won’t release the new leaves.

I spent a few years dealing with “damping off” disease in my seedlings, a fungus disease that attacks right at the soil level, rotting off your new seedlings until they fall over dead. It’s really depressing, especially when you are on a time line to get stuff growing. I tried sterilizing my soil by baking it at a low temperature in the oven, bleaching my soil trays, and using chamomile tea to water, as chamomile has anti fungal properties. I also used peat moss in my soil starting mix, which is also supposed to be anti fungal. None of this worked. Fungus spores are airborne and pretty much everywhere. What I FINALLY figured out was that I was killing my seedlings with kindness by over watering them. I was letting moisture collect in the bottom of the trays, and watering with a spray bottle every day. Now I let the soil surface dry out a bit between watering and have had no problems since. Yeah!!! Oh, and take off that plastic cover (if your trays came with one) as SOON as your seedlings start to emerge.

Plants need light to grow. Everyone pretty much knows that. And yes, you can start some seeds in a sunny window, assuming you have the space and the sun. But generally what happens when you do this is that the seedlings get “leggy”, meaning they get tall and long with weak stems. Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of strong sunlight a day. Most windows don’t get that. Buying a few inexpensive fluorescent shop lights (or stealing them from your garage for a few months) is worth it. florescent lights give off enough of the type of light that plants need (red to blue wavelength) to be a good imitation of sunlight until it is warm enough for everybody to go outside. Keep the lights as close to the seedlings as possible without actually touching the leaves. Hang the light from a chain with “S” hooks so that you can adjust the height every few days to maintain this distance as the plants grow.

I almost always plant two or more seeds in each pot, and then “thin” to the strongest plant after they have a few leaves. I HATE thinning. After all that work, it just seems wrong to kill a seedling. If you have hardened your heart, the best way is just to snip off the one you don’t want. That way, you don’t disturb the roots of the plant you want to keep by pulling out the offending smaller start. I often just can’t bring myself to do this, and so gently pull them out  (another reason to use a light weight seed starting soil) and transplant them into their own container. This will set back (no growth) both seedlings by a few days, as they recover from the trauma. But I often end up with lots of extra plants to give away to friends and family this way, and I start most plants about 8 weeks before they need to go outside, so can afford to lose a few days to transplant shock. Every plant is different. Some really resent being disturbed. Others barely notice. Basil sprouts are bomb proof. Every one, no matter how disturbed, seems to grow when transplanted.

Run your hand over your plants, so that you move the leaves and bend the stems a bit (think simulated light breeze) a few times a day. This will help your plants grow strong stems.

You may need to “pot up” your seedlings before it is warm enough to transplant your babies outside. This means that you need to put them in a bigger pot. What you DON’T want to happen is for the roots to reach the edge of your pot and then start circling around and around. Once they do this, they tend to keep doing it, even when they have plenty of room to grow later. So, keep an eye on your roots (either by popping out a “plug” – when the plants are big enough the roots will hold the soil together enough to take them out if you are gentle, or by keeping an eye out for roots growing out the bottom of the pot). I usually end up potting up my tomatoes a few times before I plant them outside. (You could, of course, also just start out with a really big pot, but that’s a lot of seed starting soil, which can get really expensive. Once they are started, regular potting soil is fine for transplanting). I save 2″ and 4″ pots from year to year (I always end up buying a few things at a nursery or big box store) to use for potting up.

Your plants will need some fertilizer if the soil you are using doesn’t already have some in it. But just as you would not give a baby an apple to eat, don’t give your seedlings full strength fertilizer. It will burn them. Dilute any fertilizer to at least half strength. I like fertilizers I can put in water for my seedlings.

So, your outdoor temperatures have finally warmed enough to allow your seedlings to go outside. Don’t just take them from your constant temperature house (or in my case, a 20 degree daily fluctuation) and plant them outside where the temperatures might range 50 degrees in a day. They need to get used to the idea first. They need to be “hardened off“. I start taking my seedlings outside during the day as soon as the temperatures get into the 50’s, and then bring them in at night. (Don’t forget them – it’s easy to do!) A place where they will get some sun and some shade for the first few days is best at first. And keep an eye on them. They can dry out much faster in outdoor conditions. Then, I start bringing them back in later and later to get them used to bigger temperature swings. Eventually, (when temperatures are consistently above freezing for the ones that can’t take a frost) I leave them outside all night, but in a protected place where they won’t get hit by wind or rain. Then, and only then, will they be ready to brave the wilds of your garden.

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where we’re miles away from our last frost date (predicted to be some time around Mother’s Day), but with each tick of the grandfather clock, we trust it is coming.

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