One of the beautiful things about starting seeds indoors is the variety of processes amongst gardeners. While the essentials are pretty much the same across the board, every gardener has her own tried-and-true formula specific to her process. Let’s go over a few specific practices that I’ve found great success with in my own growing experience!
Step-By-Step Guide for the Absolute Beginner
When you start seeds indoors, remember that nature itself wants to survive. This is not a Gardener vs. Seedling situation, but rather a collaborative effort of nature doing its thing while you provide the support needed along the way. Before we break down the specific steps I use when I grow my garden from seeds, I want you to take a deep breath and exhale any stress related to “getting it right”. That stress only robs this learning process of its joy and wonder, and we’ve no need of that here.
Moisten Your Starting Mix
Before you begin filling your seed-starting containers with your growing medium, you’ll want to moisten the mix. Since I grow my seeds in my home and have been plagued by fungus gnats in the past, I moisten my starting mix with boiling water to kill any fungus gnat eggs within the mix. When it comes to fungus gnats, an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure, and I’ve had great success in stopping an infestation before it begins.
When I open a bag of starting mix, I pour whatever I need into a large container (anything from a kitchen mixing bowl to a large storage tub) and pour boiling water on top of it. You’re looking for the starting mix to be evenly moist but not sloshing wet. This year I used approximately 8 quarts of water per 16 quart bag of starting mix. The exact ratio is not important; you simply want to 1) make sure all the mix is moist and 2) that the heat is evenly dispersed throughout to kill any eggs lurking inside.
After you’ve added your water, give it a mix, pack it down, cover it with tin foil and wait for it to cool.
It goes without saying that boiling water can cause serious damage if it comes in contact with your skin. Children should not attempt this without adult supervision, and adults themselves need to carefully consider whether they can safely pour boiling water without hurting themselves or others. Please forego boiling the water if you are unable or unwilling to complete this step safely; your safety and the safety of those within your care is more important than the eradication of fungus gnats.
Filling the Containers
Once your starting mix has cooled down, it’s time to start filling your chosen containers. Remember, if the mix is too hot for you to handle comfortably, your seeds aren’t going to love it either.
Some gardeners shake their containers to remove air pockets, and others go a step further and use their fingers to lightly press down on the mix to create a denser unit for the seed. I’ve done both, though I prefer gently creating a thumb imprint and then adding additional mix so the seed is sure to make contact with the mix and not fall into an air pocket.
Planting the Seeds
Depending on what I’m growing, I will either significantly overseed the cells or limit myself to a couple seeds per cell. I never put a single seed in a single cell, because sometimes seeds don’t germinate. I don’t want to wait around for a single seed to sprout and then be behind schedule if I have to start over. By planting more seeds than I need within a container, I have a much higher chance of producing something worth keeping. Remember, you can always thin out the seedlings later.
Label the Seeds
This is a step so simple that it’s often overlooked. Your brain will tell you that you can remember what you planted in your starting cells. Your brain is lying. Dirt looks like dirt, and even the seedlings’ first sets of leaves will all look similar! Unless you are particularly fond of guessing games, label your seeds as soon as you plant them to save yourself the drama of planting a mystery specimen in your garden!
Finalize Your Space
Now that your seeds are nestled happily in their moist growing mix, your job is done. Turn on your heat mats (if using) and get your lights ready to shine the moment you spy the first hint of green. After you start seeing some growth, don’t be afraid to let the tops of the starting mix dry out a little bit! This helps combat fungus and molds that thrive in continually damp environments. When the tops of the cells appear dry, “bottom water” them by filling their trays with water and letting the soil wick up what it needs until the tops of the starting mix are damp again. After about half an hour, discard any remaining water in the tray to prevent root rot in your seedlings.
Growing seeds is an art as well as science, and there is great diversity in how gardeners produce strong seedlings to transplant into their gardens. Experiment. Play. Learn! And in case you haven’t heard it yet today: “Yes, you absolutely can do this!”.