This post is inspired by Troy, who called me up this week wanting to talk about plants. He purchased a few things from me last year and was very excited about the upcoming gardening year. In fact, he wasn't willing to wait for the plants to be ready - he went about starting his own seeds.
I find this very inspiring. One might think, as a nurseryman, that this lessens potential business that I may generate if people are starting their own seeds. While initially this may be the case, I think it is net win in the end for all parties. People who take the time to start their own seeds greatly increase their knowledge of gardening and how to best nurture seedlings along until they are ready to be set outside. They begin to learn the signs of a healthy plant or a stressed plant. What (and how) seedlings react to as far as soil, light, and temperature are concerned. How to protect young seedlings in the early days. Tons and tons of useful knowledge.
Now, it's wholly possible that Troy will jump in the ocean and become a full-blown nurseryman like myself and start everything that he intends to grow in his garden. I would bet that this most likely won't be the case. I do think he'll continue to grow things himself, but he'll likely purchase a few plants that he may not have time to grow or perhaps can't find the seed for. It's in this case where someone like me - who puts tremendous value in the quality of seedlings - will benefit. Troy and others like him will be armed with the knowledge of how to choose healthy vigorous plants. While that may or may not be from me, my plants will be at least in the mix for consideration.
Good luck to Troy and all you self-seed-starting gardeners out there. You increase the quality of what is expected for starts and for that I thank you!
With that said, here are some tips for people wondering how you can go about starting your own seeds.
1) Soil - For a professional grower, almost all seeds are planted in what is called a 'soil-less' mix. Essentially, there are no nutrients or minerals available to the seed in the media. It's been shown that seeds germinate better in an austere growing environment, as fertilizers and other pathogens naturally found in any soil can inhibit the sprouting process. But, you aren't a professional grower (yet.) My first year of starting seeds, I just used normal potting soil. I probably didn't get the expected germination percentage, but I got a few of everything I planted. The only recommendation I would offer is try to choose a soil that has the least amount of wood/forest product incorporated into it. I find that seedlings don't like it (my guess is that it's too acidic.)
2) Pots - I used pots from plants I purchased in prior years that I saved. If you don't have any on hand, you can procure some pretty easily. Almost every nursery has a recycle bin for these pots. I have scrounged many a pot and flat from these bins. However, if you want something brand new, I'm pretty sure these same nurseries will stock normal 3-4" pots. Craigslist is also a good way to score some cheap pots too.
3) Light(s) - You can use a sunny south-facing window if you don't live in Portland. Otherwise, a cloudy south-facing window will suffice. Plants can get a bit leggy as they reach for the light. If you have a shop light around, these work very well for starting plants. Two 4' shop lights can comfortably handle 4 10"x20" flats of plants. The added benefit is that you can keep the lights on 24-7. The seedlings grow exceedingly quick with this method. All that talk about plants needing dark? It's over-rated, at least in the initial seedling phase. As they mature, they need a dark cycle, but they will be outside by then.
4) Bottom Heat - Some of you might be aware that seeds germinate a lot quicker when the soil is warm. This is absolutely true. You don't have to go out and purchase a seedling heat mat, thought, those do work very well. The first year I started seeds, I placed the pots on the water heater. The bump in temperature was slight, but enough so that it can make a difference in getting seeds such as peppers and tomatoes to sprout far quicker. When you first sow seeds, don't worry about light. It's more important to keep the soil warm (ie, the window sill is actually quite cold and will inhibit germination.) At the first sign of seeds beginning to sprout, move them to the light source.
5) Moisture - Until seeds sprout, the best way to keep the soil moist is to cover it with plastic. You probably have seen propogation domes and that's what they are used for. However, you can achieve the same thing by putting some saran wrap over the top of the pot/flat to help retain moisture in the soil. Just be sure to remove it when you see the seeds emerging. Oh, and all those pictures you see of propogation domes with those nice healthy looking seedings? It's a lie! Plants need air movement to survive, much less grow. Don't enclose a plant in a dome like that unless you want your seedling to lean over from suffocation.
6) Potting up - After germination and the first set of 'true' leaves (which are actually the second set of leaves to emerge), you can pot up the seedlings to bigger pots. Take a knife, popsicle stick, screwdriver, or anything that you can find that can loosen the soil around the plant and allow you to lift it out of the soil. Once plucked from the original, pot it into the larger one and fill in with soil. If the plant has grown leggy (long stem between soil and first set of leaves), you can bring the soil line up to the first set of leaves on the stem. This allows for a more solid base and your plant is less after to fall over as it gets bigger.
7) Watering - water daily, but also allow the top of the soil to dry out to prevent against a fungal problem known as dampening off. This occurs when the plant stem is infected and the fungus cuts off it's water and nutrient supply and it dies a very quick death. Allowing the soil to dry each day will essentially eliminate this from occurring.
8) Air Movement - Plants can't respire properly without air moving around them (they don't have lungs!) A small fan will do the trick. Even having a furnace that will blow warm air past them every so often will suffice. Just don't isolate them in a box where the air grows stagnant and stale.
And that takes you to the time of setting it out into your garden. Each type of plant is different in the time it takes for it to be ready. Lettuce is 4-5 weeks. Tomatoes are 6-7. Peppers are 7-9. Allow 4-7 days to 'harden off' the plant before finally putting it outside for good. Start with a few hours outside the first day. Increase the second and third. Finally, if it's not going to be cooler than normal, leave it outside overnight for a couple days. By then, your plants will be more than ready for the garden.
Best of luck to you all! I hope to hear of your successes.