Springtime Hope: Tips for Growing Healthy Seedlings
I think that starting seeds indoors each early spring is one of my favorite parts of gardening. It’s can still be cold and dreary, but a shelf full of tiny plants helps make it feel like summer is just around the corner.
Over the years, I’ve had some great batches of seedlings and some pretty epic failures. I like to think it has taught me something. Hopefully, a few of these tips can keep you from making the same mistakes.
Invest in the right supplies.
Sometimes it’s easy to make do with what you have on hand. However, I’ve found that you can significantly improve your success rate with seedlings for a relatively small amount of money and effort.
All you need is containers with drainage or a soil blocker, trays to catch water under them or hold your soil blocks, and potting soil. Don’t use containers without drainage, and don’t use ordinary garden soil. Poor drainage and regular garden soil will make your seedlings susceptible to fungal diseases such as dampening off.
Always read the instructions or do a little research.
Many plants are relatively easy to start from seed. You push some seeds into the soil and have little sprouts in just a few days. However, some other plants are a bit trickier to start. For example, Echinacea requires cold stratification, snapdragons need light to germinate, and bee balm can take up to 20 days to sprout!
Provide ample light.
Most folks should be providing their seedlings with supplemental light. You can use grow-lights or simple shop-type lights with long bulbs. You’ll want to hang them, so they’re adjustable, and keep them about 3 inches from the tops of your seedlings as your plants grow. While this may not seem necessary, most crop plants require full sun, unlike many houseplant varieties. If you don’t provide supplemental light, your plants will reach for the light and grow leggy in most homes.
At this point, light is a bit of a balancing act for us. Since moving off-grid, we no longer have enough power to run supplementary lights all the time. Thankfully, we have large (think door-sized) south-facing windows that provide a lot of sunlight. West Virginia also has plenty of warm spring days that allow us to set plants outside and bring them back in at night.
Keep them warm.
This one depends on what you’re growing, but many seeds that are started indoors, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, like it warm, especially while they’re germinating. This was a big problem for me during my first year of gardening. I couldn’t figure out why my peppers weren’t sprouting! The issue was that they were in a room that stayed cool.
Nowadays, I’ll set these types of plants close to our woodstove until they germinate. However, you can also purchase seed starting heat mats to place under your plants. They’re safe to use and waterproof, although they can be quite pricey.
Get a bigger shelf than you think you’ll need.
This one is just typical gardener advice. You’ll probably end up growing more than you originally intended. It’s hard to say no to all those gorgeous varieties in the seed catalogs.
When in doubt, plant thick.
If you have seeds that don’t have a stellar germination rate or are a few years old, it’s okay to plant multiple seeds in each cell. Many seedlings like onions and tomatoes are easy to separate, especially if you try to leave a bit of space between seeds. Be sure to separate them before they begin competing for space (not an issue with onions).
On a side note, you can test your seeds for germination before planting if you’ve got extra. Place ten seeds or more inside a folded, damp cloth on a plate. Keep the plate somewhere warm and keep the cloth moist but not soaking wet until the seeds germinate. Then you can find the percentage that germinated.
Fertilize your plants.
Never fear organic gardeners, I don’t mean with chemical fertilizer. Once your seedlings have true leaves, you should give them a boost about once a week. We use liquid kelp. If you purchase the kelp, it should have instructions, but you’ll want to add just a tablespoon or two to a gallon of water and then water your plants.
Pot up your plants if needed.
If you got an early start, you might need to pot up your seedlings or move them to a slightly larger pot. Many plants like tomatoes and peppers do well with this. Leaving them in small pots can cause them to begin root-bound and stunt their growth. While this may not kill them, it can make them slower to take off after transplanting.
Harden off your seedlings and watch the weather.
Before it’s time to transplant your seedlings, you’ll need to harden them off. You should move them outdoors for a few hours each day to adjust them slowly to full sunlight, wind, and cooler temperatures. My previous post, The How-to Guide to Transplanting Seedlings, goes into this process in great detail and has further tips for transplanting your awesome seedlings.
Go forth and grow.