Starting Seeds


Seed Sprouts

Ok, time to get our hands dirty! Yes, even with all that snow out there, you can start planting. While it's a bit early for us, there are some plants that need a long time to get ready for growing outdoors in our climate. As well, you can start seeds for things that you'd like to keep indoors during colder weather. For example, an indoor planter would be ideal for year-round fresh herbs or hot peppers.

To start your seeds indoors, you'll need a few basic supplies:

Seeds: This one is kind of a no-brainer, and if you've been following along on the blog, I would guess you've got seeds ordered or purchased already.

Starter material: Definitely do NOT use soil from an existing garden. Often, this kind of soil will get compacted in a container, which will make it really difficult (if not impossible) for the seed to sprout. You can get seed starting mixes at most garden centres and hardware stores that carry gardening equipment. If you don't see it on the shelf, just ask - stores will often make space on their shelves by stashing "seasonal" items in a back room. You can make your own as well - just google Seed Starter Mix, and you'll get plenty of good results. One in particular that I'm fond of was published by Gayla Trail, author of "You Grow Girl" and "Grow Great Grub". You can find her recipe here.

Containers: There are a lot of options here. Used 1L and 2L milk cartons (thorougly washed out, of course) are ideal for plants that need a long root structure, like tomatoes. Yogurt containers are good for a lot of different kinds of seeds, as long as they don't need a lot of room to grow. Even egg cartons can be used, though I find them way too shallow to do much more than the initial sprouting. You can also go out and buy seed starting trays - they're more costly, but they are often reusable and many come with a clear plastic cover to help insulate the seedlings in their beginings.

A way to keep track of what is planted where: My prefered method in my seed starter trays is to use a map. The trick here is to make sure that you don't lose the map, and that you have a frame of reference. For example, I've got mine labelled somewhat like a spreadsheet (letters for the rows, numbers for the columns), so I can keep track of it in my gardening spreadsheet. Alternatively, you can use plastic markers with the name of the plant you have in that container. I would avoid wooden markers, as I've found that they can develop mould when the seed starter mix is damp.

Light: In the winter and early spring, there aren't enough hours of sunlight to sprout healthy plants. Often, relying only on the sun will end up in thin and weak plants. Your best bet is to provide them with artificial light. You should use bulbs that are labelled "full spectrum" or "grow light", to ensure that your plants receive the light they need. In the past, I've made use of whatever natural light I could get, and then extended it with artificial lights. This is a nice idea, but comes with its own challenges.

Heat: This one is somewhat optional. Clearly, you want at least the heat of being indoors in your home, but you can apply some extra heat to give the seeds a jumpstart. Whether you increase the temperature of the room, use a heater near your plants (not too close), or buy a heat mat (which goes underneath your seed starting containers), this can be a real booster. However, it isn't technically necessary for the majority of plants.

You've got all your gear laid out in front of you. Now what? The first thing to do is to figure out how far ahead you need to start your seeds. Often, both indoor and outdoor start times are based on "Last Frost Date", which refers to the average day that the last hard frost occurs in an area. For St. John's, it is listed as June 2, so when figuring out when to plant, you would work back from that date. Your first best bet for start dates is to read the package; sometimes, the company will put information on indoor growing right on the packet. If the information isn't readily available, try running the name of the seed through Google, with the words "seed start last frost". If you see the words "direct seed", this means that you probably don't need to start it indoors. The exception to that is if it's something like peppers or tomatoes. Sites that are talking about the southern US might say to direct seed tomatoes, because their growing season is longer (and tends to be warmer) than ours.

Once you figure out when you need to start, it's time to actually start! Fill your containers with your seed starting material, pressing it down very gently. This gives your seeds something to push off of when they first sprout. Plant your seeds according to the seller's directions with regards to depth. Depending on the size of your container, you could plant anywhere from 1-10 seeds in each. Be sure not to crowd your seeds too much, as you'll end up pulling up the weaker plants to give the stronger ones room to survive. Water your newly planted seeds, and then start playing the waiting game. If you are using home-made containers, you can cover them with plastic wrap or other clear plastic to keep the heat and moisture in at first, but as soon as you see a single sprout, take the plastic off and leave it off.

When using some containers (both home-made and store-bought), you might find that seeds get a white mould on the soil, or the seedlings can look very dark. This is called "damping off", and it covers a lot of different fungal issues that can kill off your seedlings. There are a few things you can do to help prevent it:

  • Make sure your containers are never overwatered
  • Give the containers good ventilation
  • Use sterilized material to plant in
  • In addition, you can treat the plants with a dose of chamomile tea, which will inhibit the funguses that cause damping off.