Tips that I have found useful in my experience of seed starting and what to avoid.
Seed starting is something that I really have come to enjoy and look forward to each new year as spring draws closer and closer. I live in zone 6 so just a not my dates that I mention will be a little different than yours if you live in a different zone - but will be useful as examples. Gardening is something that filled my heart in ways I didn't even know I needed. It has become an expression of myself and a way to provide delicious fresh food for my family and friends. There is so much satisfaction for me to see these little seedlings grow into big beautiful plants that create so much in just one growing season - so as you read along I hope these tips help you in some way. I am by no means the expert here, however I feel I should share what I have learned along the way.
Seed Starting can look intimidating but when you learn to scale to your size of garden and space it is a beautiful tool that will give you the ability to grow food you can't find in the store and that in itself to me is so worth it.
Tip #1 - Seed Catalogs
I take time to order seed catalogs, now just a note you don't have to do this but there is something about holding a beautiful catalog in the middle of winter sipping on coffee and dreaming about the garden that just feels right.
Most of the time you can get these catalogs for free if you visit a seed companies website, you should be able to find a send me a catalog button or box. Some companies have condensed versions of their large catalog for free while the entire seed catalog will be a specific price to buy. An example company is Baker Creek Seed Company (rareseeds.com).
The reason I recommend to have catalogs to look through and explore is that you can read so much information for each variety and you can make notes, use sticky markers to mark what you love and then go through everything and narrow down what you will actually be purchasing. This just makes sense to me because flipping from one screen to the next on my computer or phone is annoying to me and with catalogs I can lay them all in front of me at once.
Tip #2 - Indoor Setup
This part will vary a lot depending on your space and the size of your garden space. I will be sharing what I use, with links and then also some really cool ideas I have found for smaller spaces than mine.
Shelving - I use metal shelving that I purchased from amazon for this 2022 growing season (they have increased in price about $8 since I purchased them), last year in the beginning of 2021 I used a little four tier greenhouse from Aldi that was $20.00 USD.You can also use window sills or shelving you already have, I bought these because I zip tie my lights to the shelf and having the gaps in the shelving makes that step super easy.
Lighting - I honestly have not discovered if you need full spectrum or not, I have used both now. I used basic regular shop lights when I had to up pot last year because I didn't have enough other lights or space on shelves where they were and everything grew great. But linked are the two different lights I have - the brighter ones we bought for our microgreens and I'll be using both which will give me a really good experiment to see any differences.
Seed Starting Trays & Domes - This year I upgraded from what I had to the trays from Bootstrap Farmer. They are a lot more durable and obviously with that more in price. I recommend always starting inexpensively when you first jump into seed starting because then if you don't like something or don't love seed starting you aren't out a lot of money. I am reusing all my trays from last year along with the new ones I have this year. The reason I upgraded is because these cell pots allow me to not have to up pot my pepper plants and tomato plants (or so I'm hoping), it will be an experiment but I wanted larger ones to eliminate that step for plants that are started early. Bootstrapfarmer.com is also an American Company and I want to eventually have all USA made products since this is where I live and I love to support business when I can here in the states. Now you can use clear solo cups, regular cups and then reuse them year to year. You don't NEED seed trays, it just makes it a lot easier to use space efficiently. Also humidity domes are not essential either it just keeps everything more moist between watering and you have to make sure never to let your soil dry out when you just started seeds.
Heat Mats - This one is also not an essential but for Pepper seeds and other varieties that prefer warmer soil to germinate it makes it a lot quicker time wise to have the trays sitting on heat mats. If you decide to do without just note that the germination may take a little longer. The size that I linked in what I use and it is perfect for two of the Amazon seed trays or one of the Bootstrap Farmer trays. There are a lot of sizes available in these so just measure what you need in your space. Some also come with a thermometer that you can set, mine don't have that, but it is something that is available.
Tools - This is just all the little extras that I have and that I like to use. I am all about being efficient as I go along. I use a pressure tank sprayer to top water my seeds until they germinate and are large enough to bottom water. I also have a power strip that has a timer on it for my lights allowing me to set a specific amount of time for my seedlings to be under light each day instead of manually turning them on and off everyday. I really like this one because I have a side that has 'Always On' plugs which I plug my heat mats in on so they always stay warm. My setup is in our downstairs to I use a little floor heater to keep the space warmer than normal to keep the seedlings happy. Usually set at 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. When the seedlings are growing I then incorporate an oscillating fan, this helps the seedlings be introduced to wind making them stronger and also keeping the airflow going to avoid algae. Last but not least I use little sticky traps when needed if I notice little gnats at all.
Tip #3 - Seed Starting Mix and Vermiculite
I always use seed starting mix to start my seeds in, because these soil mediums are designed to allow the new roots to spread easier allowing the plant to grow freely without having to work hard to grow. I have always used either Espoma's Seed Starting mix or one from Pro Mix. A lot of these mediums are already mixed for you (which I like) but you can make your own as well. I am not an expert in the perfect ratio for that so that will be something that if you want to try there are a lot of great blogs and YouTubers that cover that topic. Just a note these mixes DO NOT have nutrition in them (or most of the ones I have used don't) so that leads me to the next tip.
Vermiculite - this I use to prevent algae and to help grow seeds that need to be pressed into the soil surface to still allow light to come through.
Tip #4 - Water Soluble Fertilizer
This is very important to have. Usually for the most part seeds sprout within 7 days of planting meaning they are soon to have their True Leaves. This point in their growth cycle they require nutrition to continue to grow strong and healthy. If you notice purpling on the bottom of leaves, or yellowing plants they definitely need food. I have a new kind I'll be trying this year - Dr. Earth Pure Gold - which I'll link for you guys but I have no experience with this product so do as you wish. I have used some from Burpee last year but I would like to get away from that brand so I'm excited to try something else.
Tip #5 - Know Your Space and When To Start
This one isn't a must but it also makes so you're not over starting seeds in excess, I am not against that because I always love giving plants away so if that's you then don't hold back. What I mean by knowing your space is that take into consideration how large each plant will grow and where you will be planning on putting them for the season. There is always a temptation to stuff in plants for me anyways. I recommend allowing each plant to have the room it needs - this always gives you a large yield because that plant has room to grow. Plan accordingly and you will have the perfect amount of plants for your space. I also love to go to local greenhouses so I sometimes leave room for my trips from there.
This is also knowing your space inside. Be aware of starting seeds at the proper time and not getting too excited and starting them early because a lot of plants started too early will have to be UP POTTED. Trust me I know from experience. Then I had to make a makeshift light fixture to have them under grow lights so just be aware of time frames. It is so important to know your last frost date. This is an easy search in google, just search 'last frost date for your zip code'. I give myself wiggle room because demographics can be different. Like for us we live outside of city limits in the country and also up on a ridge so we have colder temps more often than the actual town my zip code is linked to. It is easier for me to go out another week than to have to up pot.
My last frost date is May 2nd but I moved it out to May 9th to give me wiggle room. Then when you read your seed packet and it asks to start a particular seed 6 weeks before your last frost, you would count backwards from the date.
Tip #6 - Enjoy The Process
I encourage everyone that starts seeds to enjoy the process, I love to sit and read the packs and enjoy the beautiful day if I have one. There is so much satisfaction in watching a seed grow and being able to plant that seedling in your space and enjoy a harvest. Gardening is so dear to me and I love each part.
Seed Starting is such an easy process, it may seem like a lot when you think of all the tools and such. Just know I started in small and took my time accumulating what I have now. Use simple items and just start a few plants and see if you enjoy it and then grow from there. Next year is always another gardening year to try new things - don't overwhelm yourself - just keep it simple.