For a gardener, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of starting seeds. Even after 20 years of germinating thousands of seeds every spring, I still enjoy the feeling of seeing life spring forth. I confess to checking each pot like an anxious father and to feeling like spring is really coming when I see each pot sending up those first few tentative green shoots. Starting seeds and growing the plants into mature garden plants is full-spectrum gardening
But I know that some folks feel intimidated by starting their own plants and really worried about making a mistake. My sense of this is you can either learn the rather easy techniques (keep reading) or simply forget feeling intimidated (give up) and buy your seedlings. Let me be honest – it’s a small seedling and if you do screw up (harder than it looks) you can always a) learn something b) try again next year and c) get some commercial seedlings and pretend you didn’t screw up. 🙂
Once the seeds have germinated, there are a few basic things gardeners can do to ensure a good plant for the spring garden.
The first is to ensure adequate light for the plant. Without an unobstructed, south-facing window, there is not enough sunlight to prevent seedling stretch without the use of supplementary lighting. This supplementary lighting will keep the seedling short and bushy.
Light can be provided by either using a special plant “grow-light” type of bulb or both of a fluorescent hot bulb and a fluorescent cool bulb in the same fixture. (Obviously you’ll need a two bulb fixture to accomplish this.)
If using a grow-light bulb, read the instructions for placing the bulb the appropriate distance above the seed starting crop.
If you’ve never used bulbs before, you’ll be surprised how close to the plant the bulb needs to be to accomplish anything. If you’re using fluorescents, they should be within twelve inches of the top of the plant. As the seedling grows, this distance should be maintained so you’ll require adjustable shelving. .
Feeding & Starting Seeds
If you want success starting seeds, you have to feed the developing seedlings.
Pale, light green, stretched out growth is a symptom of both inadequate lighting and feeding.
If a liquid plant food is used at 1/4 strength on seedlings, they will respond with much darker leaves.
- For every two weeks the seedling is alive, another 1/4 strength can be added to the mixture.
- For example, for the first month, feed at 1/4 strength.
- For weeks 4 to 6, feed at 1/2 strength; the developing seedling will appreciate the feeding and will grow much quicker.
Do not increase the strength of the feed to speed up the growth rate of the seedling. Increasing the strength of feeding to young seedlings usually results in poor seedlings.
Imagine how you feel when you eat too much, force feeding plants is the same except that they simply die instead of watching football games after a big meal.
Once your starting seeds have 4 leaves, they can be transplanted.
For my special plants in the spring, I transplant them directly into either a 4 inch pot or a 6 inch pot. I give them all the room they need to grow and as much soil volume as I can spare in the greenhouse.
Your seed starting efforts can do the same by using a good soilless mix and as big a pot as you have room for (don’t forget to keep them well lit) to ensure you have a good strong healthy plant.
People always say to me, “I germinated 75 seeds but I only have room for 20 plants in my garden, what do I do with the extra seedlings?”
I throw extras into the compost pile. But then again, I’ve started millions in my gardening life and while I love plants,
- if I have my own seeds grown,
- if I’ve enjoyed growing them, if the seeds only cost a buck or two
- and the cost of my finished plants are quite a bit cheaper than the local garden centre.
Why do I need to fret about discarding a few extra?
If you are still feeling badly, you might check with your local day care or kindergarten class – often these folks can use seedlings so the kids can try gardening.
As a note, don’t give kids tricky plants because they can kill seedlings in ways I never imagined until I started hearing the stories from the teachers. Give them the cast-iron survivors like beans or marigolds.
Now we have our well fed seedlings in a high light spot, the temperature is in the low 60’s and they are getting ready for the garden.
Having said all that, there is always a plant or two that decides to stretch out and pull a jack and the beanstalk growth habit. When that happens in our greenhouses, we simply prune the plant.
If the flower plant is stretching out we simply cut the top inch or two off the leading growth shoot. This forces side growth and creates a very bushy plant that performs very well in the garden.
Don’t be afraid to take the pruning shears to your annual flower plants.
If the veggie transplants get a bit on the tall side, don’t prune them, simply plant them much deeper in the garden soil so only the top 4-6 inches of plant is visible. The rest of the stalk will develop roots on most common vegetable crops.
That’s it – simple techniques to ensure you have your own transplants and a simple way to solve any problems.
So now what’s stopping you?