From Seeds to Seedlings

The pansies sprouted and were transferred from the top of the fridge to the garden window about 4 weeks ago.

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I’m doing all I can to ensure their success – they are about 3 inches from the grow light and are sitting on a heating pad set to low.  The grow light is set on a timer so they get 10 hours of light a day, in addition to the indirect natural light this window receives.  The garden window tends to be a bit chilly, so the heating pad keeps the soil from getting too cold for good root establishment.

Here are the impatiens that I started about 2 weeks after the pansies.

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A few are robust, but for the most part, they all look rather gangly.  I’m not sure what more I can do for them.  Just keep them watered, warm, and enlightened!

I plan to start the sweet peas and a few other direct sow seeds this weekend.  The forecast in my area is predicted to be sunny with temps in the upper 50s and low 60s.  Sounds heavenly!  I’ll be out digging in the dirt!

Have a marvelous weekend!

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Let the seed games begin!

At the risk of speaking the obvious or even preaching to the choir, this post should be considered a beginner’s guide to starting seeds.  Many, no actually ALL, of the things I’m doing for the garden right now aren’t actually happening in the garden.  Things get started way before the planting, and they start in my mixing bowl.

Is it too soon to start?  According to my seed starting calculations, I’m way ahead of schedule.  I typically start my seeds around St. Patrick’s Day (mid March), but this winter has been particularly brutal and I just want to do something besides look at the 12+ inches of snow and ice that cover the lovely gardens.

I decided to start with pansies this year.  They can be started well before your typical start date, usually 8-12 weeks before last frost.  They can actually be set out before last frost.

I purchased peat pots this year and some Miracle Gro seed starting mix.  The package does include instructions, but if you follow these completely, you will most likely be disappointed with the results.

starting mix

Soaking is the key.  One key element in using peat pots and dry mix that comes in a bag is water!  My dad always started out by soaking the plant mix with plenty of water before using it. I grabbed my handy dandy mixing bowl, dumped some of the starting mix in, and stirred in a cup of water.  Once the mix absorbs the cup of water, you may need to adjust the “ingredients”.  You don’t want mud, and you don’t want dust!  You want the mix to be crumbly and moist – just right!

Soak those peat pots thoroughly before filling them with mix.  Otherwise, they will steal all the water that you mixed into the mix, and that was intended for the seedlings.  Once you fill the peat pots with your prepared mix, don’t smash it down.  You want those seeds and seedlings to be able to breath.  Just tamp it lightly.  I take a pencil and poke slight holes (the package says 1/8 inch, so these holes are VERY slight) in the mix.  This year, I decided to place 3 holes in each pot, dropping one seed in each hole.  The thinning will be easier if the seeds aren’t planted directly together.

Oh how I hate thinning as it always feels counter productive.  Those seeds actually had the ability to sprout, how dare I decide which ones survive!

Once those seeds are in the holes, cover gently with more of the mix, and tamp lightly.

spray mister

Now water gently – I use a spray bottle at this point as the watering can is a bit too much and will disturb the location of those seeds.  Cover the peat pots with plastic, then I place them on top of the fridge.  It’s nice and warm up there, and I’m not tempted to keep opening the plastic to peak in on the progress!  I will check on them in a week.

Working in the soil, even if it is only seed starting mix, feels so good!

A Formula for Seed Starting Success

I have never really given much thought to the science of starting seeds.  I estimate our set out time (here in Zone 5b) to be somewhere between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. So mid to late May.  I usually start my seeds on St. Patrick’s Day – mid March.  No science to this logic whatsoever.  Most years it works, depending on what seeds I’m starting.

seedling

So I’ve been reading many other blogs and a few have mentioned a starting formula, a seed starting schedule.  Wow – a formula for starting my seeds.  I should have thought of this myself!

We seriously need to start with the seeds.  And if you have organized your seeds like me, you know exactly where to find them!   Check your seed packets and separate them into 2 categories – those that are sown directly into the soil, and those that are started indoors.  Most annuals will be sewn directly into the soil.  Most perennials will be started indoors.  But take a look.

Most of my seeds indicate “6-8 weeks before last frost date”.

Last frost date?  Just how am I supposed to guess at the last frost date?  There’s an app for that – well probably, but I did a quick Google search and, lo and behold, a link that reveals the last frost date!   Check it out, compliments of the Farmer’s Almanac!  You can find cities in the US here, and any Canadian cities will be linked to the closest US Climate Station.  Interestingly enough, there are no guarantees here.  The site claims to be 50% accurate!  Hah!  It’s their best guess, I guess!  My last frost date is May 1.

Sort your packets according to these recommendations.  I added a small sticker to indicate (in large numbers!) which week to start, 4, 5, 6, and so on. Some packets, especially those for perennials, may only tell you how long it takes the seeds to germinate. If that’s all you have to go on, take that figure (which is usually a range) and add 6 weeks. Then label the packet accordingly.

If there’s no information on the seed packet, you can pretty safely just start all your seeds about 6 weeks before you’ll plant them outdoors. Make note of which plants are too big or too small at planting time, and then you can make adjustments next year based on your notes.

Creating the Calendar

To calculate your planting dates, you need to count back from the last frost date in one-week increments. (I base my calendar on Saturdays, because that’s the day that I usually have available for seedstarting). In my area, the last frost date is May 1.  For me, when I count back from May 1, Week 4 is April 3, Week 11 is the week of February 13, etc. Simply write the week number (8,4, 6 or whatever) on the seed packet.  When the planting week arrives, you just grab the right packet and start planting.

Making Adjustments

Now that you have a great schedule, here are a couple of reasons you may want to make some adjustments:

Start earlier: Seeds take longer to germinate and plants grow more slowly when air and soil temperatures are cool (below 70 degrees F). If you plan to start your seeds in a cool basement or cool bedroom, you may want to shift your whole schedule a week or two earlier.

If you have a cold frame or greenhouse, or if you use row covers or water-filled teepees, you can plant tender seedlings several weeks before the last frost date. Just count back from that expected planting date to get the right date to sow your seeds.

Start later: If you grow your seedlings in a greenhouse or a very warm room, you should cut a week or more out of your schedule. Heat promotes rapid growth, and you could find yourself with giant plants that are ready for the garden before warm weather arrives.

So, back to my seed collection.  Most of my seeds that can be started indoors should start 6-8 weeks before last frost date.  Seven weeks before May 1, is the week of St. Patrick’s day.  So, according to my system, I wasn’t so far off with my “St. Patrick’s day” to “Mother’s day” formula.  If I back it up just a bit, I should be able to enjoy a couple more weeks, 50% of the time.

Ah, but beware!  Last year was one of the “other” 50% frost dates, as we had a killing frost in late May.  By the time I went out to purchase the annuals I hadn’t started, most gardeners in these parts were purchasing their second crop, and the nurseries were sold out.  Good for those nurseries, not so good for me.

Seeds of Organization

Those of you who know me well are not surprised that I actually want to organize my seeds.  It’s a project that has been a long time coming, tho.

This old shoebox had been as close to organizing the seeds as I’d ever come.  photo (2)Not real sure about what was contained here, but at least I knew where the seeds were!

I started out by weeding out the seeds that were more than 5 years old.  I tested a few this past spring and got 0% germination rate, so I felt pretty good about tossing them.

I have many packets of store-bought seeds and many zip lock sandwich bags of seeds that I have gathered from nature.  For the store-bought variety, I placed the seeds in these small 2×2 zip lock bags I purchased online.

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If you search on Amazon.com for “2×2 baggies”, you will find many vendors to choose from.  I then cut the envelope front for a picture of what will grow, and cut the back for directions on how.

For the seeds I gathered, I made sure to label the zip lock bags with a description and a hint of where they came from.

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For both sets I included the date, either of the “packed for” year or the year I gathered.

These trading card pages are the perfect size to catalog and store the seeds.

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I bought mine at Wal-Mart, and you can get them at any office supply store.  I sorted mine by flower v. vegetable v. herb.  I haven’t done much vegetable growing, so most of my seeds are flowers.  I have many collections of columbine and marigolds, so I have a whole page dedicated to them.  I also used “post it” type notes so that when I run out of the seeds in that pocket, I can reuse the pocket.

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Keeping the seeds in a binder, labeled and sealed, makes it so much easier to visualize what might be started come springtime!

The seeds are starting!!

My little seeds have graduated!  It only took a week on top of my fridge for the 2 small flats of flowers to germinate.  I’m pretty good at forgetting to check on them, but they didn’t get too leggy this year.  I moved them into the garden window where they will get some good morning light.  I have a small greenhouse in the garage, but really need to rig some grow lights and heating pads in order to use it.

I started impatiens, forget-me-nots, marigolds, morning glory, hollyhocks, and zinnias.  Marigolds and zinnias will grace the front yard, where we get heavy hot afternoon sun.  They seem to be the only variety that can withstand such conditions, and the bunnies don’t seem to like them so much.  The impatiens will bring all the smaller gardens together as they will provide a similar theme in all beds.  Hollyhocks are a new experiment this year – I’m going to plant a sun garden along the driveway and they will add the necessary height at the top of the garden.

I really like these starter kits.  They come with pellets that expand when watered, then you sow the seeds and cover with the clear plastic lid that is included.  Once the seeds start, you remove the lid and place it under the kit for safekeeping.  The only problem I’ve ever had with these kits is removing the plants once they outgrow the kit.  It’s a delicate operation, but patience is always the name of the game when dealing with young plants with tender roots.  It’s easy to pull the plant out without its roots.  I take a small baby spoon and dig them out.  Delicately.

Their next home will be individual paper cups, and in a few weeks, they will be ready for the great outdoors!