Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Seed Starting Basics

Seed starting can seem disappointing to many, I know it was my first time.  Weak, spindly plants often died right away or during transplant.  I have learned a few things in the past couple of years on how to get a decent plant from seed, but the first thing I learned was the Native American Rule of 4.  I cannot remember where I heard it, probably one of the many documentaries I have watched, but it goes something like this:
 - if you are gathering food (or planting a crop) plan 4 times the amount you think you might need.  In gathering, you would take some (1), leave some for someone else (2), leave some for animals (3) and allow some for bugs and disease (4).  If you plan for more, you won't be so disappointed to lose a few!

  Choosing good seeds really is not too hard.  Select with a reputable seed company to ensure decent germination.  I have had the best luck with Johnny Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Bountiful Gardens.  Johnny Seeds will tell you on the package the germination rate, most of which are above 90%.  I love Baker Creek and Bountiful Gardens, because they only sell heirloom, non-GMO seeds.  Also, Bountiful Gardens sets up their catalog for the purpose of growing in a bio-intensive way (small space, large yields).  Each of these companies have free catalogs they can send, or view them online.
  I start my seeds in 72 cell flats bought at any store for about $5.  I have 4 and have reused them for 3 years.  Just be sure to wash them in a vinegar water solution between planting to kill any disease that may be present.  Note, do not use terracotta pots for seed starting.  The clay draws moisture away from the soil and the seed will not germinate well.  With that in mind, you can use just about any other kind of container to start seeds.  Our first year, I used an egg carton with egg shells cut in half, filled with soil to start beans and it worked just fine.  I prefer the 72 cell flats because of 'the rule of 4', I can fit more potential plants into the flat.  For example, last year I started with 72 tomato plants in a flat, about 64 grew to be transplants (plant with 4-6 true leafs)and at least 5 plants died during transplant, which left me with 59 tomato plants.
  You can use a variety of soils mixes or even straight up compost to start seeds.  I like to fill each cell with half potting mix at the bottom and top it off with seed starting mix at the top.  I do this because the seed starting mix holds moisture well and is suited for optimal germination.  I put regular potting soil at the bottom because I leave my plants in the cells until they are ready to transplant directly into the ground.  It also saves money since seed starter costs more than potting mix or soil.
  When it comes time to plant your seeds, fill the container and wet the soil first allowing time for it to soak and drain.  Then, plant the seed as instructed and give it another short shower.  A good rule of thumb with watering is the water should dissipate after 3 seconds.  This way you know you have excellent drainage.  Next, you want to cover your container with plastic wrap or a plastic lid that comes with some flats.  This will create a little greenhouse to hold moisture and heat in (I usually set my flats on top of the refrigerator for extra warmth, just be sure to check every other day for sprouts.)
  The majority of plants germinate best around 70 degrees and then can tolerate temps between 60-75 for the best growth.  This is just an average however and there are many cool season plants that can be directly sown into the ground when temps are between 45-55 degrees (peas, lettuces, spinach, radishes and cole crops.)
  Once the seedlings poke through, they will need a light source.  I have rigged up a wire bookshelf with a couple of under cabinet style florescent lights to give my seedlings a good start. The shelf I think was about $15 and the lights ran about $7 from Walmart.  We use the shelf for other storage the rest of the year and only start seeds indoors in the spring.
  It is a good idea to feed your seedlings, since its only available food source is what you give it.  There are endless combinations to create fertilizer.  My first year I used Miracle Grow watered down in a misting bottle.  Last year, I used a concoction of 2 tsp fish emulsion, 2 tsp dish soap, 1 tsp whiskey all mixed in a quart of water.  I sprayed this on the seedlings every couple days to keep soil damp and it worked well (I got the recipe from Backyard Problem Solver by Jerry Baker).
  When the temps outside are tolerable for whatever you are planting, start hardening off the plants by putting them outside in their flats for a couple hours a day in non-direct light.  When the plants have 4-6 true leafs, they are ready to be transplanted into the garden.  Note, the first set of leafs a plant has are food cells and not considered true leafs.
  When you transplant seedlings, be sure to water the plants about 15 minutes prior to planting.  Also, dampen the garden soil before putting the plants in.  This will help with transplant shock.  Adding a little fertilized to the plant at this time is also a good idea.  Each plant does better with different kinds of fertilizers, so you just have to read up on it.  I also prefer to transplant my seedling after 4 pm so the plant will not be scorched by the southern sun.  I think it gives the plant time to adjust to its new home.  Remember to treat your seedlings like the babies they are and they will grow up big and strong.

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