Nothing I'm about to say is actually a secret or original but it's what I have found to enable consistently successful seed starting for most vegetables and other annuals. If you follow these basics, you will be successful. If I can do it, anyone can!
Foundation Keys to Successful Seed Starting
You must do ALL of these things well to start seeds. Any variation in the execution of any of these items will successfully diminish your success. So here they are:
- Good, Well-Drained Seed Starter Soil. I've been told by A&M and other "authorities" that your seed starting mix must be sterile. However, I've been using horse manure in my mix with excellent results. Actually, I believe that it is the SECRET INGREDIENT that prevents a lot of problems such as damping off disease that other people experience. Other than that, the recipe is pretty typical to produce and nice, tilthy, well-drained mix:
- Peat Moss - 3 parts
- Vermiculite - 2 parts
- Fine Sand - 2 parts
- Horse Manure - 2 parts
- Water from Below. Once you have your soil prepared, you are ready to start planting. When choosing planting containers, the main thing to think about is that it should be set up to water from below. Above watering is one of the key causes of damping off disease. You can use almost any kind of container but I like the self-watering kits. My favorite is the Propamatic which comes in 24 cell and 40 cell kits. I like the 40 cell version because I like to maximize my shelf space. I grow between 1 and 2 thousand plants each spring so space is a premium. They also come with a plastic dome which helps with initial germination. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND these kits. They pay for themselves in a season and last for years. Planting is easy: Wet the felt wick pad and set up the seed starting kit. Add soil and plant your seeds. I suggest planting the same species of seeds so that germination is uniform. Once planted, water from below and rewater as often as you need to keep the soil consistently moist.
- Light from Above. Good lighting is also important. Many people try to start seeds in south facing windows and other indirect lighting situations but this will produce long, scraggly plants. Of course you can go with the expensive plant-specific lights, but I'm too cheap for that. I use the cheapest fluorescent shop lights I can find. My shelf is rigged with two sets of two 4-ft. lights on adjustable chains. I adjust the lights so that they are always nearly touching the plants. The plants can actually grow around the lights and gain some additional warmth. One set of 4-ft lights will support 4 propamatic boxes or 160 plants! I run the lights on a timer from 12 to 18 hours per day...the more light, the faster the growth.
- Keeping the Plants Comfy. Seeds and comfy plants enjoy consisted, moderate temperatures. I start all my seeds indoors where the temperature varies little from 68 to 78 degrees. I've had good luck with both cool season seeds such as broccoli and spinach as well as all warm season vegetables and annual flowers. Some folks will start their seeds in a garage or other unheated space that is protected from frost but I can say with certainty that the starts are much slower when the temperature is colder.
- Roof Over Their Heads. My propamatics come with a 2 inch plastic dome that I leave on the units until the seeds have sprouted. Once sprouted (for tomatoes, they will be touching the top within 5 days of seeding!), remove the top. Once the top is remove and the plants begin the grow, watering will be necessary more frequently. At this point, I start watering with a mild liquid fertilizer.
That's it! You should have strong plants ready to transplant between 2 and 4 weeks depending on how big the plants are. Be careful about leaving them too long in the propamatic as the roots will make themselves at home in the felt wick and will be ripped off when you transplant.
Timing is pretty easy to calculate. Work backwards from when you want to plant your garden by subtracting 6 weeks from your plant date. This is your seed starting date and should provide plenty of time to grow some great transplants.