Monday, March 18, 2013

March Therapy - Starting Seeds

March.  The most dreaded month of the year for me.  Piles of dirty, nasty snow.  A hint of warm air, followed by days of chill, just to break your spirit.   Brown, dead grass.  Cold rain and dirty, muddy boots. No snow for kids to play in.  Too cold and mucky for them to play outside. A winter's worth of mushy dog poo in the yard waiting to be stepped on. 

I despise March.  I dread March.  I wish we could go right from snowy February to cool, rainy April.  But nooooooooo..... we have to endure March in all it's depressing, disgusting glory. 

March.  There is only one redeeming factor and it is this - March means I can start planting vegetable and flower seeds in my basement.  March means I can seriously start plans for the garden.  And sometimes, March means I can actually go out in the garden and get some dirt under my fingernails.

I guess March isn't so bad after all...

After my post about selecting seeds and planning the garden, I had several people ask me how I start my vegetable seeds.  Now, I'm no expert at seed starting, but I have been doing it for a few years, so I can share some tips and pointers.  Again, I want to stress: Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you make it.   You can be super fussy about how you start your plants and maybe you'll get healthier plants and better yields, but I still think you can get good results without driving yourself crazy. 

Who should consider starting plants?  It's certainly not for everyone.  If you plan on having small garden with a handful of tomato and pepper plants, then it might be in your best interest to buy the plants from a garden center, ready to go in the ground, instead of trying to start them from seed yourself.  However, if you plan on having lots of plants in your garden, buying them can add up fast, considering each plant can cost around $2-3.  You can buy a whole packet of seeds for less than that and grow 30-40 plants, instead of 1!  So, if you are looking to save money, need lots of vegetables and want more control over what you plant, starting seeds is for you. 

I'm not going to lie - starting plants can be complicated. There is a lot to think about and quite a bit of planning ahead (which is not my strong suit). I'm going to try to make this as simple
as I can. Bear with me - I know some of my readers will find this information to be terribly boring, while others will love it. If you don't plan on starting seeds, skip this post and tune in next time!

I.  Thinking Ahead
  1. Determine what you want to plant this year.  If you have not ordered seeds by now (click here to find my favorite seed companies), you should head to the nearest garden center and check out their selection.  Try Fruitbasket Flowerland - I feel they have the best selection of conventional and organic seeds in West Michigan.
  2. Carefully read and examine the instructions on the back of the seed packet.  You should see one of two phrases:  "Direct sow" or "Start indoors".  "Direct sow" means you can literally just stick the seed right in your garden - no fuss, no muss.  Often, these are quickly maturing plants and some are even frost hardy.  You can start some of these indoors, but it's not absolutely necessary.  "Start indoors" indicates that this plant needs more time to grow, so you need to give it a headstart indoors for a few weeks before you can put the plant in the garden.  If you try to plant these from seed in your garden, many will not mature before the fall killing frost. Some of these plants are not frost hardy. 
    1. Examples of "Direct Sow" plants:  Lettuce, spinach, beans, peas, cucumber, corn, carrots, kale, radishes, etc.
    2. Examples of "Start Indoors" plants:  Tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), eggplant, etc. 
  3. Figure out what Plant Hardiness Zone you live in and the Estimated Frost Dates for your area.  Hardiness Zones are especially helpful when planting perennial plants (regrow every year in the same spot), such as trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs (some are perennial and some annual). Knowing your Zone helps you determine if the plant will survive harsh winter weather.  Here in West Michigan, we are in Zone 5 or 6, depending on the geography and proximity to Lake Michigan. Plant Hardiness Zone MapSome seed packs will tell you what month the plant should be direct sowed or started indoors based on your Zone.  If not, the seed pack will say something like "Start indoors 6 weeks before last frost date/planting date/transplanting date".  How do I know when is the last spring frost date, you ask?   Check out this site to find the approximate dates of the spring/fall frosts.  Enter in your state and it will pull up information about the cities in your state, letting you know when it's safe to plant warm season crops that are killed by frost. This chart is used by fruit and vegetable growers to determine the last frost of the spring and the first frost of the fall - the time between these two events is considered the "growing season".    Here in the Grand Rapids, MI area, we can expect our last spring frost between April 29 - June 2 and our first fall frost between September 15 - October 10.  That gives us roughly 120 days to grow warm season crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, melons and corn.
  4. Sort through your seeds and put them in two piles - seeds that can be direct sowed and seeds that need to be started indoors.  Be aware that some seeds may fit into both piles.  For example, broccoli should be started indoors in the spring and transplanted after the frost date for a summer crop, but can also be direct sowed into the garden midsummer (July) so that it produces a fall crop in September or October.  Read seed packs carefully.  You will find all this information there.
  5. Find a calendar and choose a date for when you plan to transplant your "start indoors" plants into the garden.  I chose May 12 as my projected date.  From this date, I counted back 6 weeks (the length of time most plants need to grow indoors) and determined when I should be starting most of my plants.  By late March/early April, I should be starting my indoor plants.  You don't want to start them much earlier than that, or the plants may get leggy or start to set flowers.  Older plants do not transplant well. 
  6. Now you're done with the hard part and ready to start getting you hands dirty!

II.  Gather Supplies
  1. Gather your supplies.  Again, you can make this as complicated or as simple as you like.  Regardless of how you do it, at the very least, you will need these things:
    1. Seeds - New seeds are best.  You can certainly try using leftover seeds from last year, but be aware that most seeds lose viability with time.  I've had decent luck with old tomato seeds, but old lettuce seeds are usually a dismal failure.  If you don't need to buy a whole pack of seeds, consider buying seeds with a friend and splitting the cost. 
    2. Growing Medium/Soil - Get thee to a garden center and ask for seed starting/growing medium.  This is not the same as potting soil.  Some seed starting mediums contain fertilizer.  This is ok, but not necessary.  If you're trying to stick to organic growing methods, it would be best to skip the Miracle Grow type stuff.
    3. Containers - You can get fancy here or go super simple.  I tend to reuse the little black plastic cells that flats of flower come in (you should wash these thoroughly to prevent spreading diseases from different plants).  I also save all the yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese containers we use during the year.  Poke a few drainage holes in the bottom and you have a fabulous growing container.  You could also start small plants with shallow roots, like lettuce and onions, in egg cartons.  Whatever you use, you should also have a tray to put your containers in, to protect your table or work surface from water damage.  If all this DIY stuff sounds like too much work, you can buy seed starting kits from a garden center, home improvement store or on-line supplier, like this one from Territorial Seed Co.  When you are first starting the seeds, you will need to keep the soil constantly moist.  You can achieve this by using a seed starting kit with a clear lid/dome or cover your egg crates/yogurt containers/cells with plastic wrap.
    4. Water - Regular watering is essential for success.  If the soil dries up at any time while you're waiting for the seed to germinate (sprout), it could prevent germination.  The soil MUST stay damp.  Not soaking, but moist.  If you have softened well water, do NOT use this water on your plants.  Softened water should NEVER be used on plants - the high salt content weakens and eventually kills plants.  If need be, go outside and fill a bucket with water from an unsoftened source or buy water from the grocery store. 
    5. Light - You have two options: natural light (sunny window, greenhouse, etc.) OR artificial lighting.  Plants need about 12-14 hours of direct light to grow quickly, so artificial lighting might be best, depending on where you live (we don't get much strong natural light in Michigan this time of year).  We use a timer to turn the lights on/off.  If you have access to special lighting systems made for starting seeds, more power to you!  If not, you can certainly use a fluorescent shop light hung above your containers.  It's recommended that you use a combination of warm and cool bulbs for optimal growth.
    6. Fertilizer - Once your babies start to grow, they will need to be fed.  As a general rule, light fertilizing every 2 weeks should be sufficient.  Make sure you are using an organic type fertilizer - you'll be eating these plants, so you don't want to be using any toxins.  I've been happy with the fish emulsion type fertilizers.  When it comes to fertilizing, I have learned two things: 1.  Under-fertilizing is better than over-fertilizing.  You could easily kill or damage a plant with over-enthusiastic fertilizing.  Follow directions on the bottle carefully. 2.  Take care to apply the fertilizer at the roots, not the leaves.  Some fertilizers can burn or damage leaves. 
III.  Plant the seeds
  1. Fill your container with seed starting medium.  I find it easiest to pour all the medium in a clean lidded garbage can, mix it with unsoftened water until it's the right consistency (not to wet, not too dry) and then fill my containers right over the can.  This helps keep the mess to a minimum.
 2.  Read the instructions on the seed packet to see how deep the seeds should be placed.  Some need to be planted 1/2 inch deep, while others, like the tiny celery seed, you could simply sprinkle on the soil and then lightly crumble some more soil on top. 

 3.  Be sure to label your containers immediately!!!  I can't tell you how many times I've lost track of what I planted or got things confused.  Keep a rag handy, so you can wipe your hands off and write your labels.  Or write your labels ahead of time and place them in the containers. Write the date on the backside of the label, so you will know exactly how long it took for the plant for germinate.  I write my labels on wooden craft sticks I got from the craft store. 

 4.  Ta-da!!!!  You have started your own seeds!  Now make sure to cover your trays/containers.  Remember, the SOIL MUST STAY WET.  This will make or break your success.  Check on the containers at least once a day and mist them with a squirt bottle if needed.  The squirt bottle is best while you're waiting for germination because it doesn't disturb the seeds.  After the plants germinate and are sturdy, you can use a watering can. 

 5.  Write down what you did in your journal.  I make notes of what seeds I use and how old they are.  I had a bunch of old seeds from 2009 that are probably not viable, but I decided to try them anyway.  When the seeds begin to germinate, I also record that in the journal.  A garden journal is a very helpful tool.  Long ago, I learned I cannot trust my brain to remember all the details about each plant and when I started them.  That job belongs to the garden journal.

6.  Wait with breathless anticipation!!!!  I planted basil on Feb. 27 and it germinated 3 days later.  I literally gasped in wonder and ran upstairs to tell my husband the good news.... and he was napping.  As excited as I was, I decided waking him to tell him basil was sprouting was probably not a great idea...


7.  When you babies start to outgrow their little cells/containers, you can carefully transplant them into a larger container, if need be.  When the risk of frost is over, you can begin "hardening off" your plants.  This involves bringing the plants outside for a few hours each day, so they can get used to being outdoors.  Start with a few hours the first day and gradually increase the time over a week or so.  Keep the fragile babies in shade/partial shade so they don't burn to a crisp.  If you try to plant them in the garden without hardening them, you could easily lose all your plants and all your hard work would be wasted.  Don't rush this process!  After about a week or so, you can then plant them directly into your garden.  Shed a little tear as you watch your babies thrive, all grown up and ready to face the world on their own. 

 There you have it, friends!  As you can see, actually starting the seeds is not that difficult.  It's the planning ahead that requires the most work.  Have fun starting your seeds and remember, Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you make it.  What works for one person might not work for you.  And keep in mind that we learn best by making mistakes.  Lots and lots of mistakes! 

What are you planning to grow this year?  Have you tried starting your own plants before?

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