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Seed Starting Magic

Seeds are truly magical.

At the beginning of each season, before sowing my very first seeds of the year, I always take a moment to appreciate that it all begins with a tote of seeds. It’s amazing– when you consider the thousands of #plants, stems, and #flowers that get transplanted, harvested, arranged, and sold during the season– that it all begins with a box of seeds which I can hold in my arms.

I also marvel at how these seeds can sit for weeks, months– even years– unchanged. But simply given the right conditions, the magic begins. And once it begins to unfold and everything is set into motion, there’s no backtracking.

We start almost all of our flowers from #seed every year. Last year, we started over 11,000 seeds using our basement set-up and lean-to greenhouse. This year we’re scheduled to start over 15,000 seeds. And that’s not counting the seeds which get sown directly into the #garden dirt in the spring. The only exception is that I do order a few trays of lisianthus plugs as a back-up plan, in case our own lisianthus fail. (Lisianthus is a topic entirely of its own!) And then there are the flowers which must begin with a bulb, corm, or tuber. But other than these, it all begins with that box of #seeds– and lots of love.

That means that starting in the depths of January, I literally spend hours each day sowing seeds, checking on #seedlings, misting them, watering them, checking the temperature, moving them off the heat, changing the height of the lights, bumping them into bigger pots, fertilizing, exposing them slowly to outdoor elements, etc. I wasn’t kidding when I said it requires lots of attention and love!

But I do love to start seeds. It keeps me dreaming and hoping of spring and summer days while there are still snowflakes floating around outside the window.

And so I thought I would give you an inside look at my #seedstarting routine. Of course, there are many ways, tips, tricks, and methods to do anything. But this is what works for us!

First, you need to sit down and do a little research and a little planning. The timing of everything really depends on what you’re growing. Some things grow slowly, and can be started 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost date. Other things grow quickly and only need 2-3 weeks before they’re large enough to be planted outside. I start extra early because I have a greenhouse and low tunnels which are ready for plants sooner than outside gardens, but most people wouldn’t begin starting seeds until March at the earliest. Check your seed packets for specific info.

Once you have a plan in place, you only need a few simple things to set up a seed starting area right in your house. Our seed-starting area is located in our basement, where I have shelving, lighting, access to water, and our heat mat. But before that, I started all of our seeds on our kitchen counter. As long as you take the basic needs of seedlings into account, you can really set up just about anywhere. Here are the elements to consider, which spring the seeds to life:

1. Moisture: Water is the first key ingredient to waking up your baby seeds. It’s as easy as moistening your potting soil before you sow, or setting your pots (with small holes) in a tray of water so they can soak up the water from the bottom. Sometimes you may need to lighty mist the seeds from above to help dissolve the seed coat.

2. Heat: This might be the top of a refrigerator, a sunny window, or a snug spot near a heater. Another great option is to invest in a heat mat. We have a heat mat which we have used for years. That’s right-- just one heat mat was all we needed to germinate over 11,000 seeds over the course of the last growing season. That’s because the seeds only need the heat mat until they germinate (a few days to a couple of weeks, depending). Then they get taken off the heat and placed under lights. So it’s easy to stagger your sowing dates and allow the seeds to “take turns” on the heat mat. And if you don't have a heat source, most seeds will germinate at room temperature anyway-- it might just take them a little longer.

3. Potting Soil: A sterile seed starting mix is best, and you can find a multitude of options at the store. We buy our seed starting mix in bulk from a wholesale supplier, but you should be able to find several options wherever you buy garden supplies. My favorite brand is ProMix.

4. Containers: You’ll need something in which you can put your seeds and soil. Some people reuse yogurt cups or other plastic containers, egg cartons, empty toilet paper rolls, etc. There are lots of containers to be found around the house. Just make sure you poke some holes in the bottom so that any extra water can drain. For someone who is starting seeds on a larger scale, you may want to invest in plug trays designed specifically for seed starting. Some are intended to be reused year after year. There are many sizes available, and you can find them at most garden centers. Whether it’s containers or plug trays, you will need a bottom tray which will hold your containers, making it easier to move them around and keeping the area clean and free of stray soil.

Another option . . . and one that I love . . . is soil blocking. With #soilblocking, you eliminate the need for containers. All you need is the bottom tray (which you would need for your containers anyway.) A soil blocker is a device which makes cubes of soil which hold together. The nice thing about soil blocking is you won’t have to wash out containers, and you can fit many more seedlings in a small space. With the small blocker, we can fit 300 seedlings in a standard-sized tray. There are bigger blocks as well, depending on the size of the seed and how fast the plant grows.

Another advantage of soil blocking is that it promotes healthy root growth as seedlings don't get root bound, but rather the ends of the roots are "air pruned." Soil blockers are becoming more popular in the plant world and are available through gardening and seed catalogs such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds. #johnnysselectedseeds

5. Light: Another consideration is light. Many seeds actually need light for good germination. That may be as simple as not covering the seed with more soil after sowing (just placing the seed on the surface of the soil-- surface sowing). While every species is different and has its own needs, the general rule of thumb is this: the smaller the seed, the more likely that light is required and surface sowing is the key (ex: snapdragons, lisianthus). The larger the seed, the more likely that it will germinate better if it’s completely covered with moist soil (ex: sunflowers, zinnias).

Of course, once the seeds have germinated, light becomes a key element for all seedlings. The best option is to have an overhead source of light. A greenhouse with natural light works great if you have one. Otherwise, grow lights or even shop lights get the job done. Try to position the lights so that they are only a few inches above the seedlings and adjust as necessary. That way your seedlings won’t stretch and get leggy. (I turn our grow lights off at night to mimic #nature.) Some people simply place their seedlings in a sunny window. That can work, but the downside is that eventually the plants are bound to stretch for the light and develop long, curved stems. Turning them each day can help, but it’s not the ideal set-up.

As plants grow, check them several times a day. Water them as necessary, move the lights when needed, and as soon as they outgrow their space, give them a new, bigger space to thrive.

As summer approaches, you can start exposing them to outdoor elements, little by little. This is called hardening off. Keep in mind that most seedlings can’t handle any frost or temps close to freezing. Also, wind needs to be introduced just a little at a time, or your plants won’t bounce back. As the weather gets better and better, the plants can spend more and more time outside, until they are ready to be transplanted. This is done usually after the danger of all frost has passed– the end of May in western Wisconsin.

If you love to start your own seeds, what methods have worked for you? What seeds are you starting this season? It’s true that sowing your own seeds in the late winter is a lot of work, but it’s just the motivation I need to get me through that last stretch of cold weather before spring arrives. And then when it does, my baby plants are one step ahead, ready to find their new home in the garden!

Starting seeds is just the first step in having a bountiful harvest, whether you're sowing vegetables, fruit, or flowers. I hope you get the chance to experience the magic of seed starting one day soon!

Happy (almost) spring!



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