Starting Seeds Indoors: Tips and Trials, by CAL

Last year I began to get much more serious about starting my plants from seed. As my garden has grown in size each year, I saw the wisdom in starting my own seeds. Never mind the increased pressure to make sure we have a sustainable food source during these turbulent times. I reasoned that starting my own seeds would give me a jump on the growing season. I could control for erratic early season weather and I would save a great deal of money as the price of seedlings as the nursery has been doubling in price. I have been expanding my growing space in order to increase the amount that we eat from the garden versus need to buy from stores.

With the shutdowns and food scarcity issues, the popularity of growing your own garden has increased greatly. So just finding the seedlings you want to grow is more than a little difficult. I cannot find many heirloom seedlings grown in organic soils at our local nurseries. In fact, one of the more popular organic nurseries locally was shut down for much of the spring this last year. And lastly, starting your seeds indoors when possible may address some of the changes in our weather we are seeing as the Grand Solar Minimum continues to impact our growing season.

My hope is that if I can have healthy, strong seedlings that have begun in a controlled environment, they will have a better chance of dealing with weather variations that might occur in May and June in our local area. For instance, too much or too little rain, late frost dates, and colder than normal temperatures all may occur. Stronger plants may tolerate these variations better when it comes to planting time. Only time till prove me right or prove me wrong. Nevertheless, these are my excuses for investing in seed growing equipment and so far, my spouse is in agreement with my plan.

I have an abundance of windows in my home which face both east and west. So last year I purchased sterile potting mix and filled 72 cell seed containers. I then proceeded to move these containers from my east windows for early morning light to my west windows for late afternoon sun. I did so on a daily basis to maximize the light. I did not add any amendments to the soil or extra light. My plants got lots of daily care and nurturing but nothing else. Well, I did end up with lots of seedlings, but they were leggy, started too soon to plant into my garden and I lost many of the seedlings. In the end, I did not achieve any jump on the growing season. In fact, I delayed it as many of my plants experienced transplant shock and it took even longer before they began producing, if they did at all.

This year I have a new plan. First, I did my research much more thoroughly. I am going to list the key information that I will be implementing this year and some of the resources that I am relying on for this year’s growing plan.

The basic needs for germinating seeds are warmth, light, and some moisture. That sounds simple, right?

Seeds

I’ve purchased my heirloom seeds from a variety of locations including Baker Creek, Bountiful Gardens, and Territorial Seed just to mention a few. I prefer to use heirloom varieties from companies like these. We try and grow organically whenever we can, and we are interested in producing vegetables and fruits with a much broader varietal array than what you might find in a grocery store.

As I look into the future growing years, the information on the Grand Solar Minimum suggests dryer weather and colder temperatures for my growing area. I am trying to keep this information in mind as I select various seeds. Territorial Seed is located near my home so I will be germinating seeds that are adapted to the Willamette Valley where I live. Many resources emphasize the benefit of using seeds adapted to your particular climate and soil type. This does not preclude using seeds from other locations, but it may give you a year or two quicker adaptation and thus more production from your plants. Deep South Homestead (Danny and Wanda) talk extensively on their YouTube channel about how they are adapting their seeds (potatoes and English Peas) to their climate and soil. YouTuber MI Gardener also discusses the differences in production when you use seeds that are appropriate for your local growing conditions.

Growing medium

It is important to use sterile potting soil to start your seeds. This eliminates contaminants that can impact seed starting and growth. Baker Creek recommends a peat and perlite potting mix. They add 1 pound of gypsum to their mix to provide nutrients to the soil and an ounce or so of Dawn dish soap to address water absorption of the soil. The soap moderates the amount of moisture that the soil takes up so that there is neither too much nor too little, according to Baker Creek.

Germination

Many seeds require heat in order to germinate. Heat mats can provide this heat, or you can locate a warm location in your house. The top of a refrigerator has been mentioned as one spot that is warm enough to germinate seeds. I’ve purchased several heat mats on Amazon. The price ranges with the size of the mat and ranges from roughly $30 for 17 x 20” mat up to $60-95 for larger mats. Of course, the more functions the mat is able to do such as being able to set a precise temperature will correlate with the price.

Seeds such pepper plant seeds like it warm. Baker Creek sets their mats at 80 degrees for peppers and 75 degrees for most other seeds in their greenhouse seed starting location. My mats will be located on steel racks in the corner of my rec room. This room is not normally that warm, so I am hoping to set my mats for 70-75 degrees for most seeds. I’ll boost them to 80 degrees for my peppers.

Light

The benefit of proper light is that your plants do not become “leggy.” Proper light allows the photosynthesis process to occur and results in strong plants with healthy green leaves that produce well. Leggy plants may or may not survive a transplant and require many more weeks to establish and produce, if they do at all. Do not consider using a north-facing window to start your seeds as your plants will not receive enough light to grow properly.

When starting your seeds indoors you need to plan for your plants to have 4 to 6 hours of direct sun or you can purchase grow lights that will provide a minimum of 5,000 lumens and at least 5,000 Kelvin. Lumens are the light energy given off by the light and Kelvin is temperature — with the correlated color spectrum that the lights produce. If your grow light only gives off 2,500 lumens, then you can put two tubes or lights together to achieve 5,000 lumens. The greater lumens given off equates to the height that a light must be suspended above your plants.

The MI Gardener gives the following data to help you plan where to hang your lights:

Lumens                             Height Above Seedlings

< 5,000                               3 – 4     inches

5,000-9,000                       5 – 7     inches

10,000                                10 – 12 inches

30,000-40,000                    5 – 6    feet

Kelvin is the thermodynamic unit of measure of the color spectrum that your grow light gives off. 6,500 Kelvin is equivalent to blue light or full sunlight. You need a minimum of 5,000 Kelvin to approximate the sunlight your plants will require. My grow lights have two phases. The first is a blue light or seed germination switch that provides more of the blue light spectrum. As the seeds germinate into small seedlings, I have a second switch that provides more of the red light in combination with a blue light. These lights are not the more expensive lights on the market so I will have to see how the lights do over time and whether the two-phase lighting makes a difference.

The biggest mistakes gardeners make when starting seeds, according to several sources, are the following:

  1. Inadequate space for seed growth. 3-inch cells are a better choice than those  72-cell containers with 1-inch square cells. We think we need lots of seedlings when in fact we need to allow those seedlings that we are growing enough space to establish good root and plant growth. So, more is not necessarily better. Think quality over quantity.
  2. Placing the seeds/seedlings too far away from the light source. The further away we have the plants, the greater chance that the photons produced by the light miss the leaves of the plants. Check your lumen output and hang your lights accordingly.
  3. Starting seeds too early. Don’t let your excitement for spring growing get you started before you should. Identify the last frost day for your area and then look on the back of your seed packages for recommended seed starting time frames. If the packet recommends starting your seeds 5-6 weeks before your last frost, take a calendar and count back 5 to 6 weeks and plant your seeds at that time. I took all of the seed packets I plan to grow this year and set up a spreadsheet on the computer with planting recommendations and the date to start the seeds. You can round to the week to make it easier and then pick a day each week to start your seeds. When I did this, it was obvious that I started my seeds too early last year. You do not want your seedlings to outgrow your containers or even worse begin to bloom at this stage. If this happens it is likely that the blooms will drop off during transplant as I experienced last year.
  4. Start the right seeds indoors. Root vegetables can be started outdoors before the last frost. There is no need to start these seeds indoors as they do not fare well during transplanting. Vegetables such as radishes, carrots, arugula, and scallions can tolerate a light frost. I am in Zone 7 and my last frost date is approximately May 15th. Typically, we can have a heavy frost or some snow in the Willamette Valley in February as we saw in some locations this past week. I plan to start my root vegetables in early March outdoors when we don’t often see a heavy frost. I’ll use row cover if there is a prediction of a heavier frost. Peas will tolerate cold rainy temperatures so they can be directly planted here in March. Corn requires warm temperature and is a seed that does better when planted directly into the soil rather than starting indoors. Check your seed packages for recommendations on whether to start your seed indoors or outdoors.

We will see how well I do this year. However I already know that given the limited availability of many items this spring I will be ahead of the pack.

Don’t be afraid to give seed starting a try.

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