Seeds for a Really Early Start

Seeds for a Really Early Start

The weather outdoors is cold and gloomy. Here on the coast it is altogether wet — the ground is sodden and squishy. Elsewhere, the first blankets of snow are falling, and the ground is freezing hard. Only the most spirited of winter gardeners are still making trips to the greenhouse, low tunnels, or raised beds at this time of year.

Winter doesn’t officially even start until the third week in December, and then it goes on for three solid months. It’s not very intuitive to think about starting seeds this early for the coming spring and summer. Yet some plants are so slow to start that December and January are actually prime times to launch seedlings for the new year. The sun is very low on the horizon, so starting winter seedlings requires certain equipment, most importantly artificial light.

The recommendations here are intended to produce seedlings that can be transplanted after a March 28 Last Average Frost date. That date is specific to south coastal BC, the Gulf Islands & San Juan Islands, and the US Pacific Northwest. The plants discussed here need plenty of time after transplant before they mature and set flowers or fruit. If your last frost date is at the end of April instead of the end of March, simply adjust forward by one month. On the other hand, if you live up north where the growing season is short and intense, starting early seedlings indoors will be key to success. Please check out our Regional Planting Charts for basic guidance on starting seeds in different regions.

Remember — most crops grow fast enough that they can be direct sown much later as spring unfolds. Many of the crops listed here are perennials or biennials. A very early start may induce flowering in the first year of growth. Also — these seeds can all be started later in the year. There is no rule saying they must be planted in the winter. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Artichoke Seeds
Artichokes

This perennial cousin of the Aster benefits from an early indoor start from January to early February. This strategy is to induce blooming in the first year. Artichokes can be started much later in the year, but no crop will come until year two and beyond. Keep artichoke seedlings under very bright light so they remain stout and compact. The time to transplant is shortly after the last frost date, so that the seedlings experience a period of about 250 hours below 10°C (50°F). This cool period simulates winter for the plants, and triggers flower formation in the first season. Give the seedlings protection if hard frost is in the forecast during this critical stage.

Asparagus Seeds
Asparagus

The strategy with this perennial is to encourage strong growth in the root crown during the first years of growth. This allows the plants to become strong and well-established for years of productivity. Unlike artichokes, an early start is not going to produce asparagus in the first year — alas, not even in the second year of growth! For the first two years, the stems and foliage are allowed to simply grow and gather energy that is stored in the plant’s root system over winter. By year three, if everything is going to plan, asparagus plants should be vigorous enough to send up lots of stems for cropping. Anyone with first hand asparagus-experience knows that this tantalizing wait is worth every moment. Fresh, home-dug asparagus is a truly wonderful thing. As with artichokes, keep early-planted seedlings very brightly lit to avoid spindly growth and leggy stems.

Columbine Seeds
Columbine

These flowers (all members of the genus Aquilegia) are prime examples of perennials that, if planted later in the year, might not produce flowers in the first year of growth. Once again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — the flowers will eventually appear in year two and onward. But for first year blooms, a really early start is key. Direct sow columbine seeds any time from autumn to mid-winter. The seeds can be started indoors, but it’s more complicated: Sow seeds in flats of moistened, sterilized seed starting mix, and place these inside plastic bags in the refrigerator for two to three weeks. Then sink the flats outdoors in the ground in a shady spot, and cover with glass or plastic. As seedlings appear, transplant them or pot them on. Germination takes 30-90 days. The flowers of columbine are followed by exotic looking seed pods which slowly split open as they dry in the summer. The pods are held upright, so the seeds inside are particularly easy to save for future planting.

Foxgloves Seeds
Foxgloves

Biennial plants like foxgloves (and indeed, beets and carrots) typically put on leafy foliar growth in the first year, and store their energy in some kind of swollen taproot. After the first winter, the plant uses that stored energy to flower and produce seeds. Most biennials have rather extraordinary flowers and copious seeds that would be difficult to produce from only one year of growth. For flowers the first year, sow foxgloves indoors very early, in December or January. Transplant two to three weeks before last frost. The seeds may take 14-21 days to germinate. If starting indoors, provide bright light and a soil temperature of 15-18°C (60-65°F).

Lavender Seeds
Lavender

This perennial plant is a bit like columbine in that it may not bloom in the first year from a spring planting. However, lavender is a very long-lived perennial that develops a woody stem over time, and seems to bloom in greater profusion from one year to the next. It maintains much of its foliage over the winter in mild regions, unlike columbine, which basically dies back to ground level. Lavender seeds germinate most evenly if seeds can be collected in the autumn and sown on the surface of a seed tray with bottom heat maintaining 4-10°C (40-50°F). The seedlings are then overwintered in a cool greenhouse or cold frame with good ventilation. Seedlings can then be potted on as needed.
Another method is to start the seeds indoors in February, planting seeds sparsely in a few pots with sterilized seed starting mix. Dampen the mix, press the seeds into the surface, insert the pots into plastic bags, and put them in the freezer for two to seven days. Let them come to room temperature on their own, and then use bottom heat as indicated above.

Leeks Seeds
Leeks

This cousin of the onion is very easy to grow, but leeks are famously slow. They have the appearance of a single chive for what seems like months. After transplanting them outdoors, they advance a little, appearing like unenthusiastic scallions (spring onions). But by harvest time, the stems have thickened significantly, and many leaves have formed. Some leeks are bred for summer and fall harvest, and a few varieties are bred for winter harvest. Start summer and fall harvest leeks from early February to March in flats indoors. Wait to start winter harvest leeks from March to mid-June in a humus-rich nursery bed outside, and then transplant. The optimal soil temperature for leek seed germination is 10-25°C (50-75°F). The seeds should sprout in 10-16 days.

Lemongrass Seeds
Lemongrass

Here is a richly flavourful member of the grass family that is usually considered a herb because of how it is used. Lemongrass thrives in the tropics, but it benefits from a really early start in our temperate region. The best strategy is to give plants a healthy head start indoors under bright lights. As soon as it’s warm enough in spring (nighttime temperatures must be consistently above 10°C (50°F)), the seedlings are transplanted into a warm growing area outdoors. As summer advances, the stems will thicken and the plants will eventually form hairy clumps to be harvested at the peak of the hot season. Technically lemongrass is a perennial, and a stubborn gardener might be able to lift plants for greenhouse growing over winter. The plants may slow to the point of dormancy, but this would make them even more productive in the warm seasons to follow. Otherwise, just treat it as an annual, and start with fresh seeds each winter.

Onion Seeds
Onions

Most onions are not fussy about timing, but they are all slow growers. Many breeds of sweet onions have been developed that form massive bulbs of 10 lbs or more, but these take special care. These competition-sized bulbs would need to be started no later than the first week in February. Use bottom heat to speed germination and then grow the seedlings on under bright artificial light to minimize legginess. After around six weeks, transplant individual onion seedlings into 8cm (3″) pots filled with rich compost. Keep them in a warm, very bright location until around April before transplanting them to a cold frame. Give each onion lots of room to grow, and support its leaves with wire tomato cages or some similar structure. Giant sweet onions like Ailsa Craig and Kelsae can be grown on in individual five gallon containers or in warm soil with protection from harsh wind.

Pepper Seeds
Peppers

A few types of chili peppers belong to the species Capsicum chinense. These include the fiery hot and famous Scotch Bonnet and Habanero types, both of which begin to show mature pods near the very end of summer. In poor years, the plants may not produce a single hot pepper. So the grower’s strategy is to start the seedlings very early. Some growers plant the seeds around Christmas, but January should be early enough. These wonderful chilies require a full 120 to mature — and that is from the transplant date. Depending on the weather, they should be transplanted in June, under cover or into a greenhouse where the extra heat will prove extremely helpful. Like lemongrass, these are tropical plants, so the strategy is to transplant them as young adults, as opposed to toddlers. In a good year, with lots of heat, they can be very productive plants.

Strawberry Seeds
Strawberries

As with some of the other seeds discussed here, most strawberry seeds will have improved germination after vernalization. That’s the process of planting them, covering the pots, and keeping them refrigerated for several weeks in order to simulate winter. Horticultural theory suggests that this aids in breaking the seeds’ dormancy and may produce a higher germination rate and more uniform sprout development. Many growers have great success simply planting the seeds in moist seed starting mix under bright lights, but success may vary from seed lot to seed lot. Either way, for fruits to develop in the first year of growth, it’s a good idea to start strawberry seeds from a really early start in January of February. The plants will grow from seeding at any time of year, but may not produce fruit until years two and three.

Woody Herbs Seeds
Woody Herbs
The category of perennial herbs that eventually develop woody stems includes oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. These are all slow growing as seedlings. These are so slow that most greenhouse propagation is done by taking cuttings of adult plants and rooting them as clones. It’s more economical to produce these herbs from seed, but the grower has to factor in quite a slow start. If bright artificial light is available, start these seeds at the beginning of February, or even earlier. It may be possible to gently harvest some of the leaves around the time they are transplanted out in mid-April to early May. But the early start will produce a stronger root system and sturdier stems by the time cold weather rolls around in the fall, and that gives the plants a much better chance of making it through winter.

We are moving!

West Coast Seeds is Moving

West Coast Seeds is pleased to announce that we will shortly be moving our offices and warehouse. We will be moving to a beautifully renovated barn on a fifteen acre, certified organic farm here in Ladner. We have been hurting for space for over a year, and this move will allow us some breathing room as we head into the busy 2017 season. And more space means an improved selection of seed varieties for the coming season.

Our much loved retail store will stay right where it is, on the corner of Elliott Street at River Road, but facility on 64th Street will be closing for good. The new warehouse will be located at 5300 34b Ave, Delta, BC V4L 2P1.

We will make a bigger announcement at the time of the move. At the moment, the future property is a bit of a zoo, with plumbing trenches being dug and electricians and painters all over the place.

This is an exciting time for all of us, and we look forward to serving you better in the years to come.

Seeds to Start in August

Seeds to Start in August

Here’s our list of seeds to start in August for fall and winter harvests. These fast-growing seeds are cold hardy, and will thrive as the nights get cooler in late August and September. Check the first average frost date for your area. In the Lower Mainland of BC, the first frost date is not usually until November 2nd.

Arugula
Beets
Carrots
Cauliflower (start indoors, transplant first week September for fall harvest)
Chervil
Chives (after the 15th)
Cilantro
Columbine
Corn salad (after the 15th)
Kale & Collards
Kohlrabi
Lettuce
Mescluns
Mustards
Pac Choi
Parsley
Peas (before the 15th)
Radishes (after the 15th)
Scallions
Spinach
Sweet Peas
Swiss Chard

Seeds to Start in July

Seeds to Start in July

Why limit your garden’s production to just the summer? There are still lots of seeds to start in July, particularly in regions with mild winters. Many of these varieties can be enjoyed as mature plants for fall and winter harvests, but lots of them can be eaten as immature baby vegetables while they are tender and sweet.

Arugula (harvest mid-August to late September)
Beans, Bush & Pole (harvest September)
Beets (harvest late September to December)
Broccoli (start indoors, transplant in August for fall harvest)
Sprouting Broccoli (start indoors, tranpslant in August for winter & spring harvests)
Brussels Sprouts (direct sow for fall & winter harvests)
Cabbage (start indoors, transplant in August for winter harvest)
Carrots (direct sow until around July 10th for fall & winter harvests)
Cauliflower (start Galleon indoors, transplant in August for spring harvest)
Cilantro (direct sow for baby greens and fall harvest)
Cosmos (direct sow for fall blooms)
Cress (direct sow curly cress for harvest in only 10 to 20 days!)
Endive & Radicchio (direct sow for fall harvest, start indoors and transplant in August for winter harvest)
Florence Fennel (direct sow for fall harvest)
Kale & Collards (direct sow for fall & winter harvests)
Kohlrabi (direct sow after the 15th for fall harvest)
Lettuce (direct sow for baby salad greens – harvest in 35 days)
Mesclun Mixes (direct sow continuously for harvest as baby greens in only 20-30 days)
Mustard Greens (sow for baby greens at 30 days, or for fall harvest)
Nasturtiums (direct sow for edible flowers in September)
Onions, Overwintering (start Walla Walla onion seeds indoors for transplanting in August)
Onions, Scallions (plant continuously from now to September for fall & winter harvests)
Pansies (direct sow for edible winter blooms)
Parsley (direct sow for fall & winter harvests)
Peas (direct sow enation resistant varieties for fall harvest – they freeze so well!)
Rutabaga (direct sow before July 15th for winter harvest)
Spinach (direct sow and harvest as baby greens in 35 days)
Swiss Chard (direct sow for fall & winter harvests)
Turnips (direct sow for fall & winter harvests)

Stagger Sowing for a Longer Harvest

Planting Short Rows

Winter is finally over, and spring has arrived. It’s time to plant seeds! Many gardeners make the mistake of thinking of seed planting as a one time, annual event, as though it was something to get over and done with to make the arrival of spring official. There are two very good reasons not to think this way. The first is that you don’t want the whole crop to be ready all at once. The second is that by staggering your sowing, you can reap your harvest over a longer period.

Staggered Sowing

One of the best pieces of advice for newbie gardeners is to not plant the whole seed packet at once. Seeds take a (more or less) even number of days to germinate, depending on the variety. The Brassicas are really fast to sprout, while seeds like parsnips may take weeks to germinate. Once they have sprouted, plants take (more or less) the same number of days to mature. So if you plant the whole seed packet in one go, the whole crop is going to be ready for eating all at the same time.

Lettuce is a good example to show that staggered sowing is more sensible. Lettuce seeds are very small, and most seed packets contain between 500 and 1,000 seeds. When lettuce is ready to pick, it has to be dealt with or it will bolt (go to seed), and become inedible. So rather than ending up with a whole bed full of lettuce that has to be picked, the home gardener should plant short rows several times in the spring. What are you going to do with 500 mature lettuces, anyway?

What are short rows? Ask yourself how much lettuce your household can consume in two weeks. Even if you have salad every night (plus some extra), that’s only 14 to 20 heads of lettuce. Use a calculation like this to determine the length of the row you need to plant. And then schedule your spring and summer seeding dates to meet this need.

Plant seeds at regular intervals spaced two to three weeks apart.

Treat annual flower seeds the same way. Whether it’s Cosmos, sunflowers, or Phacelia, the bloom period will be extended if you plant several times from spring to early summer.

Like everything in gardening, there are exceptions to the rules. Many crops (like peppers and tomatoes), require a single, early sowing. Some crops (like zucchinis and pumpkins, and some herbs), are so productive that you only need a couple of plants. Many flowers really need the cold of winter and early spring to break their dormancy before they germinate. But consider the list of seeds that are worthy of staggered sowing:

Arugula
Bush Beans
Beets
Broccoli
Cabbage
Carrots
Chicory
Cilantro
Corn Salad
Cress
Kale
Kohlrabi
Lettuce
Mesclun mixes
Mustard greens
Pac Choi
Peas
Radishes
Spinach
Swiss Chard
Turnips

Finally, there are some seeds that come in such a wide range of shapes, textures, colours, and sizes, that they warrant planting new varieties with each sowing interval. We love to plant a different lettuce variety every two weeks or so, to break up the routine a bit. It makes salads more interesting and summer harvests more compelling. Do this with peas and bush beans as well, for variety, and also to get to know specific types that appeal to your tastes and perform better in your garden.

Andrea Bellamy’s Top Patio Picks

Andrea Bellamy

Author and blogger Andrea Bellamy recommends these varieties for container growing on balconies and in other small spaces. These seeds are perfect for the urban grower or part-time farmer who lacks garden space, but wants to grow a little food.

Andrea Bellamy Garden Blogger
Author and blogger Andrea Bellamy

Plant these seeds in pots with good drainage holes using store-bought, bagged potting soil.

Maxibel filet organic bush – Excellent flavour, super productive compact plants. Use a 5 gallon pot or larger.
Sugar Ann snap pea – Bushy plants that don’t need a trellis. Use a 5 gallon pot or larger.
Sungold cherry tomato – Tall vine plants that do need a trellis, but what flavour! Use a 5 gallon pot or larger.
Mignon carrot – Gourmet baby carrots with very nice flavour. Any deep pot will work.
Red Sails looseleaf lettuce – Deep red lettuce that is very slow to bolt. Use a 3 gallon pot or larger. Window boxes work well.
Ancho peppers – Mild heat, outstanding flavour. Use a 3 to 5 gallon pot.
Astro organic arugula – Fast growing salad greens that will grow year round. Use any pot.
Mizuna organic – Another fast growing salad green that produces 12 months of the year. Use any pot.
Lacinato organic kale – Pick as needed, big, ornamental kale plants. Use a 5 gallon pot or larger.
Peppermint chard – Harvest this decorative and delicious crop at any time of the year. Use 5 gallon pots or larger.
Tyee spinach – The best tasting spinach around. Grow from Autumn to early summer in 3 gallon pots or larger.
Sweet organic basil – The easy herb that positively describes summer. Use any deep pot.
Chives – You will be amazed that you ever lived without fresh chives. Nearly any pot will do.
Santo organic cilantro – Super fast and fresh. A cool-season herb. Nearly any pot will do.
Gaillardia – Grow for colour, not for eating. Excellent in containers 3 gallons or larger.
Snow Cloth Alyssum – Sweet smelling, attractive to pollinators, and just nice to have around. Any pot will do.

Small Space Vegetable Gardens ZBK967-2

Andrea Bellamy is the author of the new book Small-Space Vegetable Gardens, which deals specifically with challenges faced by urban growers, and provides solutions and practical advice to help anyone grow great food. Andrea’s blog Heavy Petal has been providing good gardening advice to readers for years. She lives in Vancouver.

Seeds to Start in June

Seeds to Start in June

Now we’re just three weeks away from the longest day of the year (summer solstice on June 21st), so the soil is warm enough to plant squash and bean seeds. Even in colder climates where the nights are still frosty, the growing season is just around the corner.

Maybe you have already planted carrots and lettuce, and your spring planted vegetable garden is already producing. Remember that planting more seeds now will produce a vastly extended harvest period. Planting more flower seeds now will extend your garden’s bloom time.

What to Plant in June

And now is the time to seriously consider planting seeds for fall and winter harvest. This is our list of seeds to start in June.

Direct sow outdoors:

Alyssum
Arugula
Barley
Beans, Bush
Beans, Pole
Beans, Drying
Beets
Broccoli
Broccoli (overwintering)
Buckwheat
Cabbage
Carrots
Celeriac (for winter harvest)
Chives
Cilantro
Cleome
Corn
Cosmidium
Cosmos
Crimson Clover
Cucumbers
Cynoglossum
Dill
Endive & Radicchio (for fall & winter harvest)
Fennel
Gypsophila
Iberis
Leeks (for winter harvest)
Kohlrabi
Lettuce
Mustard Greens
Nasturtiums
Oats
Oregano
Pansies
Parsley
Parsnips
Phacelia
Pumpkins
Rutabaga (wait until after June 21st)
Scallions
Spinach
Squash
Sunflowers
Swiss Chard
Turnips
Yarrow
Zinnias
Zucchini

Seeds to sow indoors in June

Brussels Sprouts (transplant in early August, fall & winter harvest)
Cauliflower (transplant in August for fall harvest)
Overwintering Onions (sow in late June, transplant in August)
Purple Sprouting Broccoli (transplant in August for winter & spring harvest)

Seeds to Start in May

Seeds to Start in May

Spring is half over, but there are still dozens of seeds to start in May. It can still be cold at night, so some seeds will continue to benefit from starting indoors in a warm room. Most seeds will germinate faster and more evenly if heated from below with a heating mat. Other seeds actually prefer cool soil for germination, and they can be direct sown in May here on the coast.

Start these seeds indoors in May:

Asparagus (start indoors in the first week for transplanting mid-June)
Brussels Sprouts (sow indoors last week in May for early August transplanting)
Cauliflower (start indoors for transplanting June to August)
Cucumbers (start them indoors in the second week in May, transplant in June)
Pumpkins & Squash (start indoors before the 15th for transplanting in June)

Seeds to Start in May

Direct sow outdoors in May:

Alyssum (after the 15th)
Amaranth (after the 15th)
Arugula (continue direct sowing short rows)
Asclepias
Basil (after the 15th)
Soybeans (last week of May, if warm enough)
Bush Beans & Pole Beans (after the 15th)
Beets
Borage
Broccoli
Cabbage
Calendula
Carrots
Catnip
Celery
Celosia
Chamomile
Cilantro
Clarkia
Cleome
Cosmos
Cynoglossum
Dill
Echinacea (after the 15th)
Fennel
Gaillardia
Gaura (before the 15th)
Gypsophila
Iberis
Kale
Kohlrabi
Leeks
Lemon Balm
Lettuce
Mint
Morning Glory
Nasturtiums
Nemophila
Nicotiana
Nigella
Oregano (after the 15th)
Pac Choi
Parsley (May is the best time to direct sow parsley seeds)
Parsnips
Peas (up to the end of May)
Phacelia
Quinoa
Radishes (until the 7th)
Scallions
Spinach
Stocks
Sunflowers
Sweet Peas (to the end of the month)
Swiss Chard
Tithonia
Turnips
Verbena
Veronica
Wildflowers (to the end of the month)
Zinnia

It’s still too cold at night to transplant tomatoes and tender perennials outdoors without protection. Wait for nighttime temperatures to be steadily above 10°C (50°F). If you live outside of our mild coastal growing area, please look to our Planting Charts adjusted to your region.

Seeds to Start in April

Seeds to start in April

This is a list of seeds to start in April for south coastal British Columbia and the US Pacific Northwest. Finally it’s April and we are past the last average frost date in the BC Lower Mainland. Because this date is an average, it means that we may still get frost as late as mid-April, so embrace spring with caution. The soil is not yet warm at this time of year, and that is a very important detail to remember. If you plant beet seeds in cold soil, for instance, they may not develop large roots. Seeds like corn and beans may simply rot in the ground if the soil is too cold. Other seeds, like those of the Brassica group, don’t need warm soil to germinate.

The weather also plays a key role here. A good general rule: If you can walk across your garden bed without huge clumps of mud sticking to your boots, it’s planting time.

One last piece of advice – don’t plant the whole seed packet. Plant short rows of seeds, and save some to plant two or three weeks later, and again two or three weeks after that. It is way easier to have your crops mature over a period of several weeks than it is to suddenly have everything come at once.

If you live in a region with harsh winters, simply adjust this list to the two weeks immediately following your last average frost date. Or simply consult our Regional Planting Guides.

Red Kyuna Mizuna

Sow these seeds indoors in April:

Agastache (before April 15th)
Asparagus
Basil
Cauliflower
Celery
Chrysanthemum
Eggplant
Lobelia (before April 15th)
Marjoram
Melons (in the last two weeks of April)
Oregano
Peppers (before April 10th)
Rosemary
Sage
Stevia
Thyme
Tomatoes (before April 15th)

Red Ursa Kale Seeds

Begin direct sowing in April:

Arugula
Bergamot
Borage
Broad Beans
Beets (after the 15th, or later)
Broccoli
Cabbage
Calendula
California Poppies
Carrots
Catnip
Celosia
Chamomile
Chives (after the 15th)
Cilantro
Clarkia
Cleome
Coreopsis
Corn Salad
Cornflowers
Cosmidium
Cosmos
Delphinium
Digitalis
Endive & Radicchio
Fennel
Gaillardia (after the 15th)
Gaura
Gypsophila
Iberis (after the 15th)
Kale & Collards
Kohlrabi
Lavatera
Lavender
Leeks
Lemon Balm
Lettuce
Lovage (mid-April)
Lupins (before the 15th)
Marigolds
Morning Glory
Mustard Greens
Nasturtiums (after the 7th)
Nemophila
Nigella
Onions (storage onions & scallions)
Pac Choi & Choi Sum
Parsley (after the 15th)
Parsnips
Peas
Phacelia
Poppies
Radishes
Rudbeckia
Scabiosa
Spinach
Sunflowers (after the 15th)
Sweet Peas
Swiss Chard (after the 15th)
Turnips
Wildflowers
Zinnias

Mark’s Ten Seedling Tips

Mark's Top Ten Seedling Tips

By Mark Macdonald @ West Coast Seeds: You’ve selected your seeds, you’ve invested in unfamiliar seed starting equipment, you’ve planted the seeds — and now the damn things are coming up! What to do?!

Lesson One: Take it easy. Remember that seeds are just like any other embryo, and that their parents have bestowed upon them a supply of food to get them started. As seeds germinate, they use this food to unfurl their first leaf/leaves, and to pop out a tiny, rudimentary root with which to take in water and nutrients. As those first leaves unfurl, the plants will begin taking energy from the sun through photosynthesis. My approach is to lay off all fertilizers until it’s time to transplant them into their permanent growing spots. Seedlings just don’t need a lot of food. They need bright light and a steady, but moderate supply of water.

Seedling in Fertile Soil using soil amendments

Lesson Two: Watering is part of the process. If you’ve used sterilized seedling mix to start your seeds indoors (a sensible choice, in my opinion), you can rely on it to provide two key essentials to your seedlings. The first is even moisture, and the second is drainage of excess moisture. You want the soil to feel just moist. After some practice, you will be able to look at the soil surface and judge by its colour whether more water is needed. If not enough water is present, the soil will be a lighter colour, it will feel dry to the touch, and your seedlings will shortly begin to show signs of stress by wilting. If too much water is present, the roots of the seedlings will not have access to the oxygen that normally fills spaces between soil particles, and the plants will drown. Too much moisture can also encourage the growth of mould and even the fungus that causes “damping off,” which is something to avoid.

Lesson Three: You can’t over-apply light. The grow lights & reflectors that are on the market now are much better than they used to be. Some credit is owed to the ingenuity of marijuana growers in developing these products, it must be said. Keep your grow lights close to your plants (10cm / 4″ above the top leaves), and expose your plants to 12-18 hours of this bright light every day. This will make all the difference by keeping the plants compact and strong.

Seedling Warmer ZHG126-1

Lesson Four: Those heat mats really do work. Seedling heat mats will shorten the germination period by several days in many cases. With tomatoes and peppers (which can be agonizingly slow sprouters), the difference is substantial. But once your seedlings sprout, take them off the mat so the soil cools down again. As with a lack of light, soil that is too warm can cause legginess – tall, spindly plants with weak stems. Use the heat for germination, and then move your seedlings to a cooler environment to slow down their growth. Stout, strong seedlings are what you’re looking for.

Lesson five: Air circulation is your friend. Once your seedlings sprout, remove the plastic dome from over your tray. The seedlings do not benefit from intense humidity. And if you leave a domed seed tray in direct sun, you can end up (as I did once) with a tray of steamed seedlings. Air moving around your seedlings will reduce the moisture that can lead to mould and fungus, and it will actually help to strengthen the stem tissues of the plants, to boot.

Lesson Six: Cats can’t help it. At least mine can’t. She does not like the taste of onions, but she sure loves to pull them out of the seedling trays and spit them out. Keep your seedlings well protected from cats, toddlers, and all other curious onlookers! Filling up all the spare space on your planting table with watering cans, stacks of pots, and other odd objects will usually keep cats from investigating in the first place.

Seedlings in Tray

Lesson Seven: Stay rational. It’s easy to become emotionally attached to seedlings, and that can interfere with both judgment and actual success with seeds. One gardener asked me in early March at what point should she be potting on her sunflowers, because they seemed to be getting big. Well the brutal truth is that she planted them too early: By the time it’s warm enough outside to transplant them, they will be huge plants already, with such confined roots that they will not be able to develop the sturdy anchor then need to remain upright. My advice was to toss the plants away and plant new seeds at an appropriate time. You wouldn’t sow them indoors before the middle of March, and that’s the very earliest date. But simply discarding plants that you have grown from seed can be too much to bear for many people.

This emotional attachment can lead to other kinds of mistakes, too. Plants rarely benefit from being fawned over. It may actually help to think of seed starting as a mechanical process, like the assembly line approach commercial growers need to take with seeds. It’s a useful exercise to plant 500 of something (or 1,000 or 10,000), because you just can’t afford to fuss over them. I’ve done mass tomato plantings like this… It still feels rewarding to see the seeds sprout and the plants do well, but in the home setting it can be tempting to obsess over individual seedlings. Try not to.

Lesson Eight would be about “potting on.” Potting on is the process of moving one seedling into a larger container with more soil to allow for root growth. Remember that the plants are growing below the soil as well as above. Healthy roots will allow the mature plant to take in moisture and nutrients easily. There is no hard and fast rule about when it’s appropriate to pot on. In the case of tomatoes, you may be able to gently tip the root ball out of the existing pot and judge by the number of visible roots if potting on is called for. Whenever you handle seedlings, handle them only by the root ball. Their stems are easily bruised by even light pinching. The need to pot on is largely dictated by the size of the container the seed sprouted in. The cells in our 12-cell seedling flats are much larger than those in our 128-cell flats. More room means the seedlings can stay in the 12-cell flat for two to three weeks longer than one planted in a 128 flat. If you see roots emerging from your jiffy pellet or coir pot (or Cowpot!), it’s obviously time to pot on the seedling. Those roots want to grow into more soil.

Plant Labels

Lesson nine: Label everything. The greater the variety of seeds you are planting, the easier it is to lose track of which is which. I did this last year by carelessly mixing up some peppers at my home garden. I had three seedlings each of four types of pepper, and thought would just keep the three pots of each together, with only one label identifying them. This was pure laziness on my part. Of course, once they started getting potted on into larger containers, and getting moved around to make room for new seed trays of other plants, they got mixed up. Pepper seedlings look, for the most part, interchangeable, so I had to wait until they actually set fruit to tell them apart. So err on the side of caution, and label as you go.

The tenth and final lesson: I now start all of my leafy greens indoors in trays. I like the 72 and 128-cell trays particularly for this purpose. I find it’s worth the effort of tediously planting a single seed per cell, and then getting them on a heat mat until germination. After the majority in the tray have sprouted, I remove the heat mat and put them in a bright, but cool room. I happen to have a south facing sun room for this purpose, but if I didn’t, I’d get some artificial light on them with the T5 fluorescent grow light tubes. When they have reached the right size to transplant, I pop them out of the cells with a length of ¼” dowel, and transplant them into a prepared row. I find this is the most economical way of planting leafy greens. There’s no over-planting or thinning involved, and you always get a plant where you want it to be in the row. If some of the seeds in your flat don’t germinate (and this will always be the case), just let the soil mix dry out, and it can be reused.

More from Steve Whysall at the Vancouver Sun.