139: Starting Seeds – 11 Things I’ve Learned
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I am not an expert at gardening, nor do I know everything about how to start seeds. But I will share with you 11 things I have learned about starting seeds while we’ve been here at the homestead. Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful to you.
1. It takes time to figure out how to start seeds
It may take you a couple years to figure out what works for you—which may not be what works for your friends who are also starting seeds. I have a friend who grows amazing starts in plastic covered food trays or ice cream cake containers from DQ. I also have friends with a super simple greenhouse set up in front of their south facing window (no grow lights at all!) and they do AMAZING things with those seedlings.
Unfortunately, neither of those sets ups have worked for us.
You need to go through the things that don’t work (and the mistakes you make along the way) to figure out what actually works. Ahem, not putting the grow light down close enough to the seeds, Amy? Yeah. Did that one year. Deciding that hardening off was a skippable step? Yeah, Amy, big mistake.
You need those fails to figure out what not to do. Just keep trying!
2. Start more seeds than you think you need
Obviously this depends on your set up and how much room you have, but if you want to grow five tomato plants, you need to start more than five seeds. Sometimes some seeds don’t germinate. Sometimes you want to grow a few seedlings for a friend. Always plant more than you think you’re going to realistically need. Having said that…
3. Seedlings grow and take up a lot of room
Seed starting trays are small. But keep in mind that those seeds grow into seedlings that take up WAY more room. Starting 80 tomato seeds seems like it makes sense when you’re just putting those seeds into the little starter pods and everything fits so nicely on the seed starting shelf.
And then they start growing.
And your husband says, “80 tomato plants, Amy? Where are you going to put those?”
80 tomato seeds is totally different than 80 tomato plants. Just keep this in mind.
4. Your grow light needs to be closer than you think
Your seedlings will stretch to the light, but if they are stretching too much too fast you’re going to have spindly little leggy things that are weak. Your light needs to be adjustable so you can raise or lower the light as needed. I use Barrina grow lights; (affiliate link) and they give a lovely purple pink cast to my office when they are on. We’ve had great luck with them—they were suggested to me by my friend Chris at Rockin’ 8 Farm.
5. Don’t use a grow light 24 hours a day
Your seedlings need time to rest, so don’t put the grow light on them 24 hours a day. I leave the light on all night and turn off during the day. This was suggested to me and it works really well, although many people do the opposite (light on during the day, off at night). Research the differences between light on at night or light on during the day to determine which is best for your seed starting set up.
6. Don’t overwater your seedlings
Seedlings should be moist, but not wet. I tend to underwater, if anything. Some folks say you should be watering your seedlings once a day, but that would be too much for mine. Mine generally get watered every other day or every third day. I think this mostly has to do with the environment you’re growing them in, etc. Pay attention to your plants, press your finger into their soil. Is it moist? Good job. A bit dry? Add more water. Really wet? Stop drowning your plant babies.
7. Don’t be afraid to pot up your seedlings
Potting up means to put your seedlings in a bigger pot before you’re to the point of actually transplanting them into the ground. I usually pot up twice before my seedlings end up in the garden. I go from seed starting pods to 7 oz. dixie cups (with holes punched in the bottom) to red solo cups (again, holes punched in the bottom).
The reason I don’t go straight from pods to solo cups is the solo cups take up more room than the dixie cups, and at that point in their growth, I generally still have the seedlings under the grow lights instead of the window in the living room. By the time I’m putting them in red solo cups, they’ve outgrown our grow lights shelves and half of them are moved to the living room on a shelf we keep there in front of our south facing window. It’s a space issue for me; your set up may be different.
8. Use a fan on your seedlings
Letting a fan gently blow on your seedlings can help eliminate damping off (a fungal disease that attacks seedlings) but a fan can also help to toughen your seedlings up. Remember, when seedlings are put into your garden, they’re going from a climate controlled area to the chaos of nature, so you want to give them the best chance at surviving.
As for when to add a fan, the verdict is out. I wouldn’t put a fan on them right away, I’d wait for them to get established a bit. Currently, my seedlings are a month old; the tomatoes are 8 inches tall and the peppers are 4 inches tall. I will now add a fan.
As for how often to use the fan, some people run it all day. Some people run it for an hour. Some people only use it when the grow lights are on. I generally leave mine on a for a few hours and call it good. It shouldn’t be blowing like a tornado at the seedlings, just a gentle breeze. Consider it to be some first level training for the outside world.
9. Harden off your seedlings
Because your seed starting area is climate controlled, you need to get your seedlings used to nature. You can’t just dump them into bright sunlight, wind, clouds, temp changes all at once or they will struggle. A lot.
Ask me how I know. Years ago, I had some nice seedlings and I didn’t harden them off because I thought hardening off was an optional thing that people mostly just talked about. My seedlings did not fare well that year.
It’s okay to laugh at me. I still laugh about it.
So, yes, you need to harden off your seedlings. The goal is to start this process a week or two before you want to transplant your seedlings into your garden. I harden off my seedlings by setting up some tables in my front lawn that aren’t in direct sunlight, and I bring my seedlings out in short sided boxes or totes to sit on those tables for a couple hours. Then I bring them back inside. Each day I increase the time they’re left outside, and I also move the tables to expose them to a bit more sun each day. Eventually the seedlings are sitting out all day and only coming in at night. Some folks say that if the seedlings can sit out all day, they’re generally good to be planted. Others say, you need to leave them outside overnight a couple nights as well. I do leave mine outside overnight a few nights before putting them in the garden.
Note: Start this process about a week or two before you want to plant them outside, but understand that sometimes the weather makes this process take longer. As in, these plants are big enough to go in the garden, but the temps aren’t quite right for me to plant… or Well, it was warm enough to plant but now Mother Nature is confused again… Last year I thought I was going to be carrying plants inside and outside forever.
10. Experiment with the best seed starting set up for you
It might take you awhile to figure out what that set up should be for your particular homestead. We’ve tried several ways until finally settling on our current set up.
My set up is a (measurements) shelf we built and attached to the wall. There are four shelves that are just a bit longer than a seed starting tray, the shelves are 19 inches apart.
There are two lights on each shelf that can be adjusted as the seedlings grow.
I love that it’s in my office and I can close the door to keep it safe from the dogs while the seedlings are still young and tender. I love that the lights are on chains so we can adjust the height. I love that the lights make me feel like I’m in a disco.
The set up you end up with will completely depend on what you’re working with! Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the best option for you.
11. Just because it worked last year…
Lastly, as with anything homestead related, just because it worked last year doesn’t mean it will work this year. Sometimes seeds just don’t germinate. Sometimes things are going well and then one day your seedlings look like your cat laid in the middle of them. Sometimes you have the most beautiful purple basil starts and you set them outside for an hour to start hardening off and they die. The green basil next to them flourishes but the purple, shrivels up and dies and won’t come back. Sometimes you have the best intentions of getting all your own seedlings into the garden and you still end up having to buy starts from someone else.
Starting seeds on the homestead is always an adventure. And that’s why we do this homesteading thing, right? For the adventure?
— Amy Dingmann, 4-26-21
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