Starting Plants from Seed

How do you determine what plants to start indoors from seed?  If this is your first time starting seeds I would recommend selecting a few types of vegetables and then buying the rest.  This will allow you time to experiment with starting from seed and learn what adjustments you need to make.   Some vegetables are more difficult than others to start from seed (we have learned this from personal experience).   

This is the first year that we decided to try and grow our own plants from seed.  Normally I buy tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, basil, parsley and cilantro plants from a garden center.  Then we directly sow the rest of our vegetables in the garden as seeds (such as beans, squash, and carrots).  

You may be wondering what prompted me to try this?  I would say a combination of curiosity and the future idea of saving money.  This year we doubled our planting area adding 2 more raised beds (for a total of 4 beds) and we knew the cost would add up quickly.   So this winter I did my research and we decided to take the plunge and grow as many plants from seed as possible.  We both figured that if it didn't work we would just go out and buy the plants we needed.  

In previous posts you have seen the Parsley, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Tomato, Eggplant, Peppers and Basil that we successfully started from seed.   I didn't get around to taking pictures when I first started those seeds, so today I am going to make sure that I show you the steps I took in detail. 

In this post I am going to be planting squash, zucchini, watermelon, and cucumbers.  Typically you just start these types of plants from seed right in the garden, but I wanted to try and give them a head start this year.  If you try squash, zucchini, watermelon or cucumbers you need to plant the seeds in pots that decompose when you plant them directly in the ground (such as peat pots or coconut coir pots)With these types of plants you want to disturb the roots as little as possible.  When you are ready to plant them in the garden you just tear 1/2" off the top of the pot and plant the entire pot and its contents directly in the ground. 


STEP 1: Make sure all your plastic trays are new or have been cleaned properly (this prevents damping off).  If you are re-using trays you need to make sure to clean them in 1 part bleach to 10 parts water solution.  Let them dry thoroughly before using.

Pots ready for soil-less mix
STEP 2: You want to place your pots in trays so they are easy to bottom water.  (I will review bottom watering at the end of this post.)

Make labels ahead of time
STEP 3: Label all your pots and mix your soil.  

NOTE: Make sure your soil is sterile don't use soil from your garden.  Mix your soil in a clean container that has been cleaned with the bleach solution or never before used.  
There are several different variations on seed starting mixes for you plants.  We used the Soil-less mix from The Veggie Gardeners Answer Book.  I highly recommend this book for any gardener.  It was easy to read and understand and had helpful tips.  The book lists 2 other soil mixes for starting seeds if you are interested in different mixes.  Select the mix that you want to use and buy your ingredients.  Below is the soil-less mix that we used.

 Soil-less Mix
2 parts Peat Moss
1 part Vermiculite*
1 part Perlite

*this is found at your hardware store in the insulation area

Put all ingredients in clean container to mix

Add water to mix
STEP 4: Add the water as you mix and give it time to moisten the ingredients.  The soil-less mix should be moist but not soaking wet.

Completely mix in water.  Soil will be moist.
STEP 5: Fill each pot with soil leaving 1/2" at the top.  

Soil ready for seeds

Marking a label with planting depths
STEP 6: Read the back of each individual seed packet for instructions on how deep to plant each seed. 

NOTE: I only planted 1 seed per coconut coir pot because we had smaller 2.5" pots.  In order to make sure I had enough seedlings germinated I then planted 2 to 3 extra pots of each type of vegetable.  

You can also just get larger sized pots such as 3 1/2" and plant 2 to 3 seeds in each pot (which is what I did with the tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers).  If you do this just make sure to use scissors to cut the extra seedlings that grow in each pot so that 1 seedling remains. (Do not pull it can damage the remaining seedling.)  Also when you have a choice keep the shortest plant.....taller is not better!

I planted the peppers and eggplants in coconut coir pots because they too grow best if you disturb the roots as little as possible. 

Planting Zucchini seed 1" in soil
STEP 7: Place a plastic cover or plastic wrap over your pots. 

Adding plastic cover to tray
STEP 8: Place the tray on a heat mat and check each day.  Once you see the majority of the seeds have sprouted remove the top plastic cover and the heat mat.  Keep the plants under your florescent grow lights and bottom water them every 2 days or so.  

More seed starting tips:
1. Understand "damping off" before you start your seeds.  This is a fungal disease that can kill your seedlings unexpectedly.  Fungus rots the stems of your plants at the surface of the soil and causes the seedlings to die.  Make sure you are doing everything possible to prevent this from happening.  I turn on a fan in the room for about 3 hours every day.  I also sprinkled the top of the soil with cinnamon and peat moss.  

2. Make sure you are bottom watering your seedlings. Do NOT ever water your seedlings from the top or get water on the plant.  Instead lift out the pots and water the tray with about 1/4"of water then place the pots into the water.  This is bottom watering.  Check them 15 minutes later and if any water remains in the tray drain it out.  Do NOT over water!

3. Keep everything clean and sterile. 

4. Fertilize your plants every week with dilute organic fertilizer as soon as they produce their first true leaves. 

5. Water plants with room temperature water.   NOT cold water (this will put them in shock).

6. Keep the air temperature around 60-70 degrees F and 10 degrees cooler at night.  (I bought a cheap thermometer so we could monitor the temperature.) 

NOTE: If your seedlings are too warm they will be spindly.  If they are kept in a cooler environment they will be slower growing and smaller however, they are also stockier and will transplant into your garden well.

7. Position shop lights no more than 2-4" above seedlings.  I recommend attaching a timer to the outlet where the lights are plugged in so they turn on and off automatically.   Set the timer so the plants have 16 hours of light per day.  

Shop lights 2-4" above seedlings
8. Harden Off your transplants before you plant them in the garden. (I will go over this in more detail in a later post.)

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