Indoor Seed-Starting Tips

There’s a lot of information out there about starting seeds indoors. While there are definitely better ways to grow seeds, a certain amount of fudging is acceptable. Here in our house, we’ve had our share of seedlings that came home in Dixie cups from elementary school and fared just fine.

Still, if you want to boost your success and the health of your plants, take a look at these tips. By growing from seed, you’ll have a greater selection of varieties from which to choose.

1) Use clean, well-draining containers, such as recycled cell packs from last season. Soak IMG_20180224_110315670.jpgthem in a 10% bleach solution for 10 minutes.

2) Don’t use garden soil: it’s not sterile, it’s too dense for tender seedlings, and won’t drain well.

This seed-starting mix with peat as its main ingredient is relatively cheap (around $5), OMRI-listed, and easy to find at Home Depot.

Personally I don’t like the little peat discs that puff up when soaked in water because it’s too difficult to control their moisture  content and they usually end up quite wet.

You want to moisten your soil until it’s damp and holds together, not drench it until it’s dripping.

3) About those seeds

  • At PPCG, you do not have to select organic seeds to grow organically. Choose them if you don’t mind spending a little extra money to support organic production of seeds. Usually you will find a wider selection of non-organic varieties.
  • Follow the directions on the seed package with regard to how deep to plant the seeds.  Some seeds need light to germinate and should simply be gently pressed onto the top of the soil; others need to be planted deeper.
  • Plant 2-3 seeds per cell (or whatever kind of container you’re using). After they sprout, choose the best seedling in each cell and clip the rest. (Don’t pull out the extras to avoid disrupting roots.)
  • If you’re carrying seeds over from last year’s stash, expect a lower germination rate. Here’s a way to test your seed viability.
  • For some crops, direct-sowing in the garden is better, either because they don’t transplant well or they grow quickly (and often early) enough that you don’t need to start them indoors. These include: beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, peas, radishes, salad greens, squash, sweet corn, and turnips.

4) Seeds like a little bit of warmth to germinate. Seed-starting warming mats help along the germination process. Or try a warm spot in your house, such as the top of your refrigerator, but remember to keep a check on them.

5) Keep them moist, too. If you stick them in a bag like this, they should be all set for a IMG_20180224_114143841.jpgfew days.

6) But once they’ve sprouted, they like cooler temps in the 60s. Get them under the lights and take them out of plastic right away.

If your seedlings start to get tall and spindly, they might be too warm or not have enough light.

Sixteen hours is best, which is why I did invest in a grow light.

Prop them up so they’re right under the light, about 3 or 4 inches away. Keep adjusting them so that as they grow, the leaves do not touch the light.

Here’s another trick to try: cover sheets of cardboard with aluminum foil and position them to reflect light from a window, etc. back onto your plants.

7) And finally, if all of this sounds like too much of a bother, skip it all and watch for the great plant sales we have in our area.

Start Here: Basic Organic Practices

(1) Build healthy soilwhich yields strong plants that are less prone to disease and pests.

  • Many of the practices noted below will help protect and develop soil. Think of it as a top priority.
  • Get your soil tested when planting a new garden and every few years thereafter.  Fall is the best time for testing–to allow time to adjust the soil’s pH if necessary–but spring is okay, too.
    • Here’s the link to UMassAmherst’s soil-testing lab. Cost is $15. Be sure to follow their instructions for soil sampling carefully.
    • The soil at PPCG was tested for metals such as lead before we established our gardens.

(2) Avoid agricultural chemicals. No syntheticOMRI

  • fertilizers,
  • pesticides,
  • or herbicides.
  • When in doubt about a product, look for an OMRI rating on the packaging, like the one pictured here.

(3) Use natural materials instead, such as:

  • composted vegetable scraps,
  • composted manure,
  • bone meal,
  • and seaweed.
  • Natural materials–unlike the agricultural chemicals listed above–provide organic matter that supports beneficial soil organisms and your plants.

(4) Control pests in the least harmful way possible by, for example:

  • handpicking pests,
  • installing barrier netting,
  • and mingling companion plants.
  • The goal is generally not to eliminate pests, but to keep them at acceptable, tolerable levels.
  • Use pesticides approved for organic growing only when necessary, as a last resort. 

(5) Focus on prevention.

  • For example, mulch to thwart weeds.
    • Mulches from natural materials such as wood chips, shredded leaves, and hay are especially beneficial for the soil. (See 3.)
    • Mulch also helps to regulate soil temperature and keeps your soil moist.
  • Learn about the pests and diseases you commonly see in your garden and take appropriate action before they damage your plants. Here’s a very useful guide to the pests, weeds, diseases, and disorders we might see in our region.
  • Rotating crops helps to keep your soil healthy and also disrupts the life cycle of pests and pathogens that thrive on particular crops and conditions in your garden.