10 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Began Seed Starting

Let me preface this post by stating that I am in no way an expert gardener. It takes many years of research and experience to gain such an illustrious title, and although this will be my fourth year gardening at the homestead I still have so much to discover. Nonetheless I have learned enough in the past few seasons that I thought I would share my fortune (and follies) with those who find themselves falling down the seed starting rabbit hole! To see all my posts on seed starting check out my category here.

I will also update this post in subsequent years with anything I find pertinent.

Lighting is important, but doesn’t need to break the bank

Lighting is one of the most important factors of starting seeds, especially if you do so indoors while there is still snow on the ground (like me.) However, an internet search will produce all kinds of results for fancy or expensive lighting systems that for a budding indoor grower such as myself, just simply weren’t attainable. Upon doing more research on what types of light are best for growing seeds indoors I found that most of these options aren’t even necessary. Yes, spectrum of light can make a difference, but I have been starting seeds with a combination of LED and fluorescent shop lighting for a few years now and I’ve had great success using what I already had.

Kansas State University has an article that I found very informative on the subject of grow lighting – I’ve linked it here.

So while an array of lamps and fixtures may not be the most aesthetically pleasing solution, I implore you to peruse your local buy and sell pages to find affordable lights before making a huge investment in integrated or advanced systems. Fluorescent bar lights, broad-spectrum LED lamps, and sometimes even heat lamps (which can be converted to fluorescent with a simple bulb change) can be found used at a very good price and will be a minimal cost for a new hobby – which, like many other extracurricular activities you’ve tried over your lifetime, may not even be right for you! Let’s be honest – if you find that your climate doesn’t really necessitate indoor seed starting, that you really just aren’t good at it, or you don’t feel like putting in the effort when you can go plant shopping at the hardware store, then it’s better to minimize your startup cost (and perhaps your losses if it doesn’t work out.)

Hybrid, Heirloom and Non-GMO

I expand on this topic in my post about How to Shop for Garden Seeds Like a Pro because it’s one of my favorite things to talk about when it comes to seeds. The bottom line is that organic and non-GMO labels are a new gimmick and don’t mean anything to you OR your wallet as a home gardener. Every seed you’ll find on the shelf, readily available for the general public will be non-GMO. Hybrid seeds aren’t bad, they’re just cross-pollinated varieties that can actually be really beneficial to us as hobby farmers. So when it comes to seed starting, unless you want to harvest your own seeds, you can go ahead and buy whatever you want and be free of judgement from those who really know what seeds are all about (wink, wink!)

Organic seeds are a rip off

As harsh as that sounds, unless you’re a die-hard organic supporter, there is only one difference between organic and non-organic seeds: cost – and that’s a scientific fact. The only thing you’ll gain from buying organic seeds is the peace of mind that may come from supporting industrial organic farming practices. While I absolutely encourage whole food consumption, I’ve never been able to justify the added expense of buying organic, especially because scientists have found that there’s no tangible difference between the two. So when you’re buying seeds that aren’t labeled organic, you can rest assured that any undesirable chemical treatment you’re trying to avoid in your home garden isn’t carried through generations via seed.

Bottom watering is the way to go

The first year that I started seeds I painstakingly watered my seedlings by hand with a spray bottle, sometimes twice a day. But as I continued watching educational videos and learning more about seedling care I discovered bottom watering, and I haven’t looked back! Not only is it a more reliable way to water your tender plants, it allows for some independence from your seed starting operation especially as your seedlings age. I’ve found that through using flats or cookie sheets I can sort of bottom water my soil blocks as well, something I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do after reading up about the method. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll always want to ensure proper drainage for your seedlings not just for soil health but for the ability to bottom water. Your plant babies will thank you!

Heat mats are worth the investment (especially in colder climates!)

I struggled with germinating any type of peppers in my colder climate before I discovered seedling heat mats. They’re affordable and commercially available at most hardware stores that sell seed starting supplies, which makes them accessible for most home gardeners nowadays (they didn’t used to be so easy to come by.) Now I use them for any seed that can benefit from warm soil! Even with my portable greenhouse at its best it will only reach max ambient temperatures of about 70 degrees in the attic where I start my seeds in the winter. So for things like peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, the constant 70-80 degree tray warmers improved my germination rates up to 100% even with older seed stock. Which leads us to our next topic…

An old seed isn’t a bad seed

If you look at your seed packets you’ll always find a “best by” or “packed for” date. It’s important to remember that these are guidelines more for stocking purposes than anything. Most types of seed (save for alliums which have very limited viability) will have good germination rates for up to 3 years past their expiration date as long as they’ve been stored away from heat and moisture. Beyond that, it’s not like they just die – you’ll most likely get reduced germination as the seed ages. You can test viability by pre-sprouting your seeds on a damp paper towel in a plastic baggie if you’re really concerned about wasting space in your trays. However, there are lots of stories from both laboratory and home gardeners which document the sprouting of ages-old seed, even as ancient as 1500 years! The biology of a seed is pretty amazing. So if you have or happen to come by some older seed packets don’t throw them out just yet – you might be surprised by what you’ll get!

Proper drainage is important

Soggy soil is as detrimental to your seedlings as dry soil. I made the mistake my first year starting seeds of not drilling drain holes in my plastic cups. As a result I had a terrible incident of damping-off, a fungal disease that kills seedlings at the soil level. Sopping wet soil is thought to contribute to this terrible affliction, so don’t waste time and money by letting your seeds sit in their juices. I use a power drill and a long 1/4″ drill bit to make holes in my plastic cups about 6 at a time, making quick work of a dirty job.

Fans are your friends

Oscillating fans are an inexpensive but invaluable addition to your germination station. Not only does it help with overall seedling health, it keeps the top of your soil dry and may prevent that darn damping-off. Simulating wind for your plants is like hardening them off while they’re still indoors because it builds tolerance and stronger stems. I start with a gentle breeze when my seedlings have a few true leaves, and move the fans around to different angles about twice a week. Adding this easy process to your regimen can greatly increase your plants’ chance of surviving while making their transition to thr outdoors.

Organization will Make or Break You

Whether it’s arranging your seed collection or labeling your plug trays, organization can make your seed starting experience fun and easy; whereas the lack of proper labeling and cataloguing can ruin everything. If you’re starting any decent amount of plants from seed you’ll want to make sure to label them accurately and effectively, and don’t ever trust yourself to remember what something is or where it’s at! I’ve made the mistake many times of thinking, oh, I’ll remember what that is tomorrow. Nope, not even close! For some people this may not make any difference on their hobby farm. But for someone like me who starts hundreds of seeds and sells dozens of starts, it can mean the difference between making some of my investment back. I can’t very well deliver cherry tomatoes to a friend who ordered paste because I didn’t label my trays properly!

Failure is what Cultivates Expertise

Whether you’re a new or seasoned gardener you will have mistakes or even catastrophic failures in the garden every year. We all do, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of! One of the things I love the most about the gardening community is that knowledge is lovingly and generously shared, and every experience one has, good or bad, is a lesson to be learned from. The more trial and error you experience firsthand will compound your understanding of your particular patch and its individual needs.

Are there any tips you’d like to share with me? Please leave me your best advice in the comments!

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