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Intrepid Urban Farmer: All About Indoor Seeds

It’s time to get started with the seeds, indoor and outdoor. This past weekend, the indoor project began with the peppers. 
 
There are many ways to start seedlings. I’ve experimented with a few different methods and finally arrived at a setup that works well for me. I find that if you have your seedlings in a place that is convenient for you to monitor and care for, you will have better luck. My setup is in my office. I’m in there every day and I really enjoy watching the little plants develop. I think this is probably the most important advice I can give. Makes it easy to be attentive.
 
Another important thing I have discovered is a philosophy of plant development that applies to the entire growth and production period of your plants. Try to foster a continuous, uninterrupted cycle of growth without any dramatic changes. What I mean by that is this: No dry periods followed by over-watering. No sudden jolts of heavy fertilizer application. No seriously root-bound plants finally set free into larger pots or the actual garden. A sure, steady cycle of growth will produce the healthiest plants and the best yields. No cracked tomatoes, no excessive greenery without fruit; no stunted, late-developing plants. It works!
 
In my office, I have an old enamel-topped kitchen table that is the perfect size for two heated mats that will take care of three seed trays holding the pots I plant in. I like to use CowPots, which are like peat pots except made from sterilized cow poo. These pots break down very easily and don’t hamper the delicate early root growth that seedlings put forth. You can then easily drop them into larger pots without disturbing the root system. I plant two or three seeds in each pot. When they germinate and start to grow, I select the best in each pot and then snip the other ones off with a small pair of scissors. I don’t pull them up because it may disturb the root system of the winner of  my version of natural selection.
 
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. 
 
First off, the process of seed starting begins with a good potting or seed starting mix. I like to put the soil in a tray and mix in just enough water to make it “friable”. This is a term that means the dirt has just enough moisture in it to hold together, yet not be muddy. I put this in the pots, packing it in not too tightly, but to the top of the pots.  These are put into a tray. The seeds are planted, (I use a pencil with an eraser on one end to punch holes in the soil to drop the seeds in) and then I cover each tray with a clear plastic cover. The combination of heat and moisture will coax the little seeds to germinate and show themselves to you. 
 
It is a wonderful thing to witness. It’s actually one of the very best moments of the garden year, in my opinion. I guess if you’re a true gardener, it’s the plant world’s version of kittens and puppies. You get my drift, here. 
 
Different seeds have varying germination times; peppers about a week, basil maybe just a couple of days. It is important to watch. As soon as you get a good stand (a favorable percentage of germination), it is time to pull the plastic cover and move them to the grow lights. Don’t leave them a minute too long, as a plant disease, Damping Off, can occur. The stems actually rot from too much moisture. Get ‘em out of there!
 
There are many lighting configurations to choose from. I use a fluorescent light system that has fixtures that can be raised or lowered according to the growth stage my seedlings are in. You want to keep the lights two to three inches above the height of your plants. Twelve to sixteen hours a day with the lights on is typical and use of a timer is a great convenience. It depends on what type of natural lighting you have in your particular setup as far as your specific strategy. I will say that the more natural light you can avail yourself to, the better the plants will like it.
 
Always monitor the watering of your plants. Be sure not to let them dry out. I prefer to water them by pouring just enough water into the bottom of the trays so that the roots will reach down to it. Don’t let water stand in the bottom. The pots and plants will absorb all they need and any excess should be eliminated. Plants can drown from lack of oxygen just like any other living organism.  
 
It is wise to use a very light mix of a liquid fertilizer to feed your plants once a week. Easy does it! A very dilute mix is best. If you keep a close eye on everything, keep the lights positioned just above the plant height, and water appropriately, you should have great, healthy plants that will be ready to be prepped for the garden in about five weeks. This preparation is a technique called “hardening off” the plants, a transitional phase to prepare them for the vicissitudes of outdoor life.
 
Seed starting is an extra step that the fledging gardener may not want to attempt. I didn’t for several years. There is so much to learn about gardening beyond seed starting that I took my time. I’m glad I did. The great thing about gardening is that you do it the way you want to, on your own time schedule, according to your own curiosity. It is the continued experimentation and learning that has always kept me engaged. It’s an extremely satisfying  journey to start. I recommend it to everyone.
 
Previously in The Intrepid Urban Farmer: All About Seeds & All About Tomatoes & All About Bugs & All About Dirt & All About Asparagus
 
The River City News is proud to produce this regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]