Tips for First-Time Seed Starters
Behind the cloud of COVID-19 lies a silver lining. Seed companies are selling record amounts of vegetable seeds as people sheltering in place with time on their hands take their first shots at growing food. Grumpy applauds their efforts and hopes this trend becomes a habit after the pandemic ends. Here are some suggestions for newbie seed sowers to ensure success whether you’re starting seeds indoors or sowing them directly into the garden.
First, look on the seed packet for the following bits of information. 1) Days to maturity. This means how long after you sow the seed does it take to sprout and grow big enough to give you something to harvest? 2) If starting seed indoors, how long before your last spring frost should you sow? (If you don’t know your last spring frost date, Google “last spring frost” and add your zip code. 3) If sowing directly into the garden outdoors, what should the minimum air temperature be for good germination and growth? 4) How tall and wide does the veggie grow? You need to know how much space to leave between plants. Crowding isn’t good.
Second, plan to grow your veggies in a sunny spot. Leafy greens take a little shade, but fruiting veggies like tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash need full sun.
Third, starting seeds indoors is a totally different animal than starting them outdoors. The main reasons you do it is to get a head start on the growing season. Keep these points in mind. 1) Always use bagged, sterile potting mix, never real soil, or anything else. Sterile potting soil is free of insects and diseases, holds water well, is lightweight, and drains well. 2) Sow seeds approximately twice as deep as their diameter. For tiny seeds, this means barely covering them. 3) To speed germination, cover the top of the pots or flat with clear plastic after sowing. This increases humidity. Remove the plastic immediately after germination, though, or a web-like fungus called “damping off” could kill your seedlings. Place the seedlings in a well-ventilated spot, but also keep the soil moist. If it dries out just for a day, wave good-bye to your seedlings. 6) If you lack a sunny window, you’ll need to buy a special grow light that provides light to plants in the wavelengths they need. Place the light source a few inches above the plants and leave it on for 16 hours a day. Plants are ready to go outside when they have three sets of leaves and it’s warm enough for what you’re growing.
Fourth, if sowing seeds directly into the garden, make sure the soil is ready. Don’t sow in mucky, wet soil that balls up your hand. Wait until it’s dry enough that a ball of soil crumbles easily. Tiny seeds can be hard to space evenly, so try this. Mix your seeds with enough sugar or artificial sweetener to fill a salt-shaker. Shake it over the length of the row and barely cover. Don’t use salt. Salt kills plants.
Fifth, when sowing indoors or out, resign yourself to the fact that you can’t let every seedling grow. Crowded seedlings don’t grow well. Periodically thin your plants to get to the proper spacing, leaving the strongest plants. If you’re growing greens, toss the culled veggies in a salad.
Sixth, expect something to go wrong. It does for everybody. Failure is the greatest teacher. Talk with other newbie gardeners, find out what worked for them and didn’t, and try again. You can only binge-watch “The Walking Dead” so many times.