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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Gardening 101: Seed Starting For Beginners

Baby Lettuce

 

Before You Start Seeds Indoors.

 

1. Make sure that’s the best solution for that particular crop. Check out Gardening 101: My Top 12 Easy Vegetables To Grow From Seed. There you will find lots of healthy plants that thrive better when I plant them in situ (ie, directly in the ground).

 

2. Read, read, read. Read the back of the seed packet, read what the seed company says about the plant on its website, read any material sent with your seeds regarding how to plant, and read the seed starting chapters in organic gardening books. The more you know going in, the better the chance of your seeds thriving into wonderfully fruit-producing plants.


3. Determine your last frost date. I know you want to start gardening, you’re ready for spring, you’re looking at all these wonderful things happening on different garden blogs… but there’s snow outside, you’re in Zone 4, and your last frost date might be in May…


The general rule of thumb is to start your seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last danger of frost. You can push it a little bit earlier, if you have cloches, cold frames, frost blankets, a greenhouse, or some other sort of season extension. But if you don’t have those, you should make sure to plant out after the danger of frost has passed, rather than risk losing your crops to a late frost.

 

Also note that you can often plant later – don’t feel like you have to start everything indoors, nor do you have to start everything exactly on time!  Look at the back of your seed packet – or in your favorite gardening book – for how long your crop will take to mature (ie, produce vegetables or fruit).  This time does not include germination time, so add time to germinate as well.  Then you can determine how long you can get away with procrastinating!

 

How Do You Determine Your Last Frost Date?

 

Ever wonder why the Old Farmer’s Almanac has been around forever and people still read the thing? Well, one of the reasons people read it is because it has details of the last frost dates for each region. Here’s an abbreviated version (here for Canada – if you’re in another country, let me know a link and I will add it here), and you can pay online to have a more detailed version for your particular area in North America.

 

If you’re not in North America and/or you don’t want to pay to find this out, you can ask around, find out what your neighbors remember. You can ask in your local nursery. You can contact your local Master Gardeners. You can call the local Farm Bureau/Commission. You can ask the farmers at your local farmer’s markets. And your local library will probably have the latest Farmer’s Almanac and other reference materials for your area.

 

I highly recommend keeping your own garden journal that includes your garden’s last frost date from year to year, as your yard will have its own unique micro-climate.

 

Is That The Same As My Zone?

 

If all you can do is determine your hardiness zone, it will help. However, the zone is a different indicator than the last frost date. Your zone is an indicator of how hardy your plants need to be to survive the winter.

 

Basically what determines your zone is the average minimum temperature in your area. It does not indicate how long temperatures will remain low, nor when your last freeze or frost will be.

 

That said, if you’re in a zone 4, chances are that your last frost date is going to be much later than someone in zone 10.

 

Find your hardiness zone here:  U.S., Australia, CanadaEurope, South America, China. For other regions, I’m sorry I don’t have links so give it your best guess.

 

Tomato Seeds

 

Equipment Needed.

 

  • Coconut Pellets
  • Seed starting medium
  • Seedling trays, or any sort of container with holes at the bottom
  • Pen or Pencil
  • Plant identification markers
  • Hydrogen Peroxide (for sanitizing everything you use)

 

Starting Seeds Indoors.

 

The Coconut Pellet Method

 

Coconut fiber is a naturally disease-free potting medium.  This is my favorite seed starting method, having worked for me every time. I purchase coconut pellets from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. They’re 12 cents each, if I buy more than 100. It may sound like a lot, but if I factor in the ease of use, and the fact that I don’t need to purchase a separate seed starting medium, it is worth it to me.  You might want to try this first, and then move on to making your own medium and potting in found containers once you’re more comfortable with the general principle of seed starting.

 

1. Sterilize. I wash all of my seed trays with warm soapy water. Then I sterilize them by swishing a bit of hydrogen peroxide (diluted 3:1, water:hydrogen peroxide). And finally, I give them a quick rinse.


2. Soak. I soak the coconut pellets in warm water for about 5 minutes. It will change as follows:

 

Cocopellet straight from the bagCocopellet expanded with water


I soak them in a seedling flat, because I find it easier to keep them upright.

 

Cocopellets soaking


Then, I place them on a mesh seedling tray which I bought at BGH (through Amazon.com). I use the mesh tray rather than a solid one, because when it’s time to water the seedlings, I can just submerge my mesh tray into a hole-less tray filled with water.


And I spread out the mouth of the pellets a bit:

 

Fully expanded cocopellets, ready to be planted

 

3. Label. Then I label my rows before I plant, so I don’t forget what I planted where. I prefer Cole’s aluminum plant markers (I buy mine from my local nursery), because the wooden ones deteriorate very quickly, long before the growing season is over. These are reusable, too. I mark them with the name of the plant on the front, and the date planted on the back (leaving room for many future planting dates).

 

Reusable Aluminum Plant Markers

 

4. Plant. I take a pen or pencil, and put two holes in each coconut pellet at the depth indicated for that seed. No need to worry about getting this perfect, just approximate. If you don’t know how deep to plant your seeds (ie, if it’s not on the back of the seed packet or in a book anywhere), a general rule of thumb is to plant them two times deeper than the width of the seed.

 

Make a hole for the seed - at the correct depth - and drop it in

 

Then I drop one seed into each hole, and gently cover the holes with the pen/pencil. When the seeds sprout, I’ll remove one, and leave only the strongest of the two seedlings.

 

5. Give them warmth and light. Again, check the back of the seed packet to see what the optimum germination temperature is. If you can’t find it, a general rule of thumb is 60-80F. And yes, they do need light. A windowsill with a lot of light will work great. You can put a humidity dome on them to keep them warmer and more moist. I put them in my growing rack outside, which is about 10-20F warmer than exterior temperatures.

 

Growing Rack

 

If you put them under full-spectrum grow lights, those lights will need to be 2-4” from the tops of the seedlings, and turned on for 16 hours/day. You must raise the lights proportionally to the seedlings as they grow.

 

6.  Water Them. I water the seedlings when the coconut fiber has just turned dry – it becomes a lighter color brown.  Plants in general seem to do better when the top inch of soil dries out between watering, and seedlings have been no exception for me.  In addition, seedlings do better if you can water from below – there is less chance of dampening off or other diseases.  So, if you’ve used the mesh tray I recommended in #2, you can just submerge the mesh tray into a hole-less tray filled with room-temperature water.  Once the coconut fiber turns dark brown from saturation, they are fully watered.

 

After the seedlings emerge, I will add a very dilute liquid fertilizer to the water before submerging the pellets. I do this each time I water.  You can use worm tea, fish fertilizer, or any liquid fertilizer.


7. Pot On. A plant’s first set of leaves looks very different than the plant will look later on. Usually the first set of leaves is much wider, to maximize the amount of nutrients taken from sunlight. The next set of leaves will be the plant’s “true” leaves. You should pot seedlings into larger pots when then have their second set of true leaves.

 

Potting On Is Complete

 

This is the way I started, and I still use this method from time to time.  It is fun, easy, and produces good, consistent results.  In the next seed starting article, I will delve into making your own seed starting medium, and using containers around the house (or even using the soil itself as a container).  If you’re nervous about starting seeds for the first time (most of us have been in your shoes), or you have had bad luck in the past, try this method first!

 

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12 comments to Gardening 101: Seed Starting For Beginners

  • ohmygoodness, thank you for this post! I can’t wait to really read it when I have the time to dedicate to it – not sneak-reading at work like I’m doing now :) I’ve been letting one thing or another delay me from starting, but I have zero frost issues to deal with from now til oh, November or so, so this will spur me into planting and planning this weekend.

    Living in a tropical zone has me thinking about rain protection for my plants, so I’m not hauling stuff inside every time we have a hurricane alert…ideas include layered cheesecloth in a frame or greenhouse plastic with holes punched in it, so the plants get some rain, but are protected too…nothing that’s been put in practice yet, just thinking out loud…any thoughts?

  • monica

    Wow this is the one of the best posts yet! I will put this at the top of my bookmarks and never, ever delete.

  • Turns out my wintered over broccolli was a weed. DAMMIT ALL TO HELL. But my new broccoli looks good!

  • Stacy

    Thank you for the great tips!

  • Christina

    Hi, Melinda, a regular reader here! I have a question and can’t find a post about it on your site – do you have thoughts about garden record-keeping to share? I will be having quite a significant garden this year; the plot is 2000 sf, although some of that is taken up by perennial fruits and some I will be devoting to a cover crop. I’m not interested in being so overwhelmed by the project that I set myself up to fail! Still, it will be a couple of magnitudes greater than anything my family has attempted before. Our support is good; we wwoof at a local farm once a week and are getting great support from those farmers in return, a very symbiotic deal. I want to establish records for the process, as it is something we intend to continue and knowing the whats and wherefores should help us improve our successes each year. I’d love to read your thoughts on the topic, and/or be directed to resources you find helpful. I was thinking to keep double records, one by calendar and another by species; I thought perhaps my kids could do the transcription from a daily journal that I write into the part organized by species.

    Thanks so much for sharing all your wonderful thoughts on sustainability for me to learn from!

  • [...] One Green Generation teaches Seed Starting 101. Reddit Stumble Upon del.icio.us Digg [...]

  • Melanie J., You’re welcome – glad I could help! As far as rain protection goes, you might find this post useful…
    monica, : ) awesome. thanks for the positive feedback!
    Rob, sigh. Do I have to come over there and cheer on your broccoli or something? Sheesh – what is up with the broccoli?!
    Stacy, You’re welcome.
    Christina, Ah. Great question. I will try to post about record keeping soon! I keep a journal, where I catalog the temperatures and weather conditions, and details about what I did in the garden and any major status changes of the crops…. I’ll go into more detail later.

  • Question: When you put the plants into pots, do you leave the roots in the coconut pellet?

  • Andrew, good question. If the roots are already breaking through the coco pellet, I plant them as is. But if the roots aren’t yet breaking through, I tear open the bottom of the coco pellet so they can move into the new soil more easily.

  • Louise Hutton

    You really added a lot of information in this piece. Thanks for giving all these tips.

    If you are looking for a way to start an herb garden, check out http://www.abetterabode.com/garden/accessories/FNA-Garden-Tuscany-Herb-Pot.htm for the Tuscany Herb Pot. It’s great for beginners as the kit has the seeds, dirt and a garden pot to start your garden.

  • I’ve been wondering if earthboxes are a good way to go?
    Have you ever used the earthbox system?
    It’s just my wife and I and we really don’t need a huge garden, nor do I think we could keep up with all the work a big garden would require.

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