More seed starting information

IN the “you can’t be the only one who needs to know this” department, I give you the following links for successful home seed-starting.  (And an apology to my international readers as most of these sites are for the U.S.  It’s not my personal bias I swear!)

It all begins with the last frost, or first frost-free date.  Killing frost, slight freeze, or just plain cold, if you’re planning on planting out those tender, lovingly-raised seedlings, it’s best to know when it’s safest to do so.  Dave’s Garden has a link by zip code with wonderful backup information behind it.

So now you know the date.  (Remember, it’s an average!!)  Next up is a Seed Starting Chart put out by Organic Gardening by plant type.  This should help you figure out what seeds should be started first, and there are handy little asterisks showing you what seeds are typically direct-seeded outdoors.  They also have a quick list to help you succeed.

While we’re at it, Organic Gardening also has a great how-to article on starting seeds indoors.  They also have good growing guides if you search by plant.

Cornell University has probably the best on-line vegetable growing guide, set up by individual varieties.

There is also your handy county extension agent.  These stalwart souls are sources of great information way beyond the mere starting of vegetable seeds.  They can help you get soil tests and help you with pest management, or even just hook you up with an experienced gardening neighbor.  Hey:  we pay these people’s salaries, and cutbacks usually come because they’re not busy enough, so use them, they’re there for you!

Likewise, your public library is also stocked with grow guides and gardening books.

Seed-starting shouldn’t be expensive; I mostly start mine in recyclable items like take-out clamshells and old yogurt containers.  (Some of these containers I have had for years…yes, I save garbage, what of it?  It’s not like the plants really care.)  And yeah, lighting is necessary, but fancy grow lights are not.  One cool- and one warm-colored fluorescent light in a shop strip fixture should cost you, in total, under $20.  You might want to splurge on seed-starting mix if only because it’s been sterilized and should be free of weed seeds…the irony is that dirt isn’t cheap.  With time however you’ll learn lots of tricks, trust me, that will save you money later on.  What other hobby feeds you, though?  Hmm?

7 responses to “More seed starting information

  1. Thanks El- lots fo good information here.

  2. I love the concept of using recycled pots for seed starting in theory, but in practice I have a terrible time with them as far as organization and space goes. I could deal with them taking up more space, but when I’ve got 300 tomato seedlings of 12 different varieties or 100 pepper plants of 7 different varieties and so on and so forth the organization and keeping track of which is which becomes a problem. And then you have hardening off. It takes long enough as it is, carrying all those 1020 trays outside, when I use individual pots it takes even longer. I set the pots on trays but then I end up with no baking sheets to use for actual baking from March until June.

    There has to be a simpler way and I figured if anyone knows it, it’s probably you. So, any tips?

    Last year I made the mistake of potting my tomatoes and peppers up into peat pots about halfway through. The plants did splendidly but did you know if you write the variety on the peat pot in ink the first time you water the plant and the pot gets wet you can no longer read what you wrote? Whoops!

    • Ugh, Diana, you’re reminding me how crazy I am when it comes to peppers and tomatoes. My notes said I grew 22(!) varieties of tomatoes last year, minimum of 6 plants per variety, and a mere 5 different peppers (so only 30). I start them in 6×36 trays (six rows of 9) and I put a tag (a cut-up piece of old vinyl window blind or piece of yogurt container marked with a Sharpie) in every. flipping. hole. When they grow out and get moved up, well, that’s when they go into bigger recycled containers, and their little tags go with them. Sometimes they go into a temporary training bed in the greenhouse, and the tags can get lost…I have to resort to making a map of them in my garden book! And THEN they get planted where they’re going to be, and the map gets updated. Whew. I had only one oops, mixing up one green tomato with another, and it was only when they were ripe that I realized my mistake. It’s the only time I feel completely disorganized, or that I think I can remember what’s growing where, and I can’t! so, thus, little annoying 2″ long pieces of vinyl everywhere.

  3. I think I have you to blame for the LACK of yogurt containers in my house now that I make my own 🙂 I used to have those things all over the place, and used them for plant markers too. Thankfully I found a bunch of blinds in a free bin, so all is well.

    I do use the traditional cell packs and trays for seed starting, but generally use them for years and years. I’m tempted to switch to the soil blocks, what do you guys think of those?

    Great links, BTW, love that dave’s garden chart–I’ve seen it but without the good explanation included. We are safe by May 10–I knew it! (Old timers here swear by the 15th, or even the 30th…) .

  4. I start my seeds in little peat pellets that I have soaked in water first. It works great for me. I line them up in trays and containers I’ve bought at garage sales — I prefer the Rubbermaid drawer dividers and can sometimes get them here and there for a quarter each. When the seeds germinate, I peel off the little “stocking” that is around each pellet to hold it together, and carefully plant it, otherwise intact, in a 12-oz styro cup. You don’t have to peel the “stocking” off, but I find that doing so helps the pellet to become one with the soil. This does not disturb the seedling at all and there’s no transplant shock. Some things can stay in this cup till time to plant out. Other things, like my tomatoes, eventually get transplanted in 44-oz styro drink cups that I collect through the year. If there are pellets in which the seed has not germinated, I might wait a little longer to see if it’s going to, and if it still doesn’t, I plant something else in the pellet. For wintersowing, I use gallon milk jugs that I have rinsed out and saved through the year. I store them by running a long strip of an old, torn-up t-shirt through the first jug handle and tying it. Then I can string on dozens more and hang the whole she-bang from a rafter in my attic till I’m ready to use them. I use pieces of old mini-blind for markers but I find that the Sharpie fades in our searing Oklahoma sun, so I use a china marker “grease pencil”. They can be bought at office supply stores or from Sometimes I can pick up eyeliner pencils at garage sales and they make good marking pens as well. Lip-liner pencils work, too, but they will smudge a little.

  5. I had fun with the Daves Garden zipcode calculator, here is what they said and it really is pretty accurate. – “Each winter, on average, your risk of frost is from September 15 through May 27. Almost certainly, however, you will receive frost from October 1 through April 27. You are almost guaranteed that you will not get frost from June 26 through August 31. Your frost-free growing season is around 111 days.”

    One of the things it took me the longest to learn was NOT to plant any sensative crops until the 1st week of June…no matter how good the weather in May looks as it is quite often very deceiving…learning this has saved our plants more times than I can count.:) It’s still hard though, especially when May often starts out so very warm…we fondly refer to it as “hokum” month.

  6. Paula, great! Glad you found it helpful.

    Diana, yeah, I think you’re on to one of the things I hate so much about seed-starting. Perhaps it’s some kind of fear of self-loathing, but I do hate how my disorganization comes out at this time of year! Most any other time in the gardens I have time to kind of figure things out (like, I will wait to see what this row I seeded and now have forgotten what it was that I seeded there turns out to be). Now, though, there’s kind of an imperative to stay organized. So it was with some distress that I realized, on seeing the sprouts, that I had planted my parsley at the wrong end of the tray yesterday: big sprouts like that mean I planted them in the holes where I had planted my artichokes! Damn!

    Sara, I have been hesitant to buy the soil block makers. They do seem so…logical, don’t they? My problem is I only have our nasty clay soil as a source, no matter how much good stuff I put in it, it still is not the best thing for seedlings. Glad the Dave’s Garden thing was helpful though!

    Ilene, I tried those derned pellet things years ago and my poor little plants always dried out. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I sure hated the little stocking that held it all together…glad to know you can peel it off to no effect. You’re right, though, transferring to a bigger cup with roots intact sure helps the seedlings out…knocking any of the dirt off is really harmful to growing roots. I do like the idea of the china marker! We have some around here, somewhere; great tip.

    Hah, Mike, April is our hokum month. Glad to hear the Dave’s link helped you! It is great having this kind of information at hand, even if your results may vary (mine sure do). But indeed, if you start thinking like a seedling, you’ll see how very cruel spring can be.

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