Starting your own seeds is one of the most rewarding things a gardener can do. When everything outside looks cold, dead, and dreary, we can have some bit of life right inside our homes.  Although it sounds easy, starting seeds inside can be challenging for a number of reasons. Our winter homes are not really ideal for plants that have certain environmental requirements not easily met. 

The first mistake many of us make is not giving our plants enough light. It is tempting to think that a table set by a window should be more than enough, but it won’t be! Seeds need a lot of light to get going. Remember the new plant only has a small amount of energy stored in the seed to get started. It needs to photosynthesize to make more food for itself.  This can only be done when there is adequate light for leaf growth and development. Too little light will force the plant to stretch in an attempt to reach a brighter location. This is called etiolation. As a plant stretches toward the light, the elongated stems are weaker and often your seedlings will end up flopping over. When transplanted outdoors as weather permits later in the season, the plants will be half laying on the ground and looking sad. This may also lead to disease problems. Fortunately, there are many light fixtures readily available to help seedlings grow. You can easily find one that will fit a plant stand or shelf in your house. There are even free-standing units available. Growing seedlings (or plants) near windows can set us up for a second problem – cold drafts. There is nothing worse for a plant than a cold drafty environment, which can lead to diseases or cold injury. Plant growth may be stunted. Seeds also need proper temperatures to germinate, and the microclimate near the window may be 10 degrees F cooler than the rest of your house (more on this in a minute). 

Fluorescent lights hung with chains allow the grower to adjust to the height of the lights to a few inches above the plants. Photo by mrl2022.

Seeds need two basic things to sprout – water and temperature. If the temperature in the house is too low, the seeds might take much longer than anticipated to sprout, or they may not sprout at all. Many times when this happens, the gardener thinks there must have been something wrong with the seeds, when in fact it was the environment. So this leaves the gardener with three options, each of which has costs and benefits. Pick the one that is most favorable to your situation.

The first and easiest is to turn up your thermostat. This will make the overall house temperature warmer with the obvious disadvantage that heating the entire house could substantially increase your utility costs. Another disadvantage is that the heat may not be where you need it, heating the upstairs more than you would like, when you are starting seeds downstairs, for example. A better approach is to use a heat mat under the seed starting trays. These can be a bit expensive as you need both a mat and controller, but once you buy them, they should last many years. A single controller can sometimes operate multiple heat mats, so this may save you money in the future if your hobby expands. The disadvantage to heat mats is that they can only raise the temperature to about 10 degrees above ambient. So, if you start seeds in a 50 degrees F basement, the seed starting medium could only be heated to about 60 degrees F.

A heat mat used for raising the temperature of the medium is limited to about ten degrees above ambient. Photo by mrl2022.
The controller for the heat mats. This one can operate up to four mats. Photo by mrl2022.

The best option in this case, would be to heat an individual room or space. If your home heating system does not allow you to do this, you could purchase an oil-filled electric radiator to bring up the temperature in your seed starting room.

An oil filled electric radiator can help raise the room temperature for seed starting. Photo by mrl2022.

The biggest mistake people make with any type of plant (houseplants, outdoor garden, seeds, etc.) is overwatering. People generally do not intend to overwater, but worry the plants will dry out. Wet, soggy soil, however, makes conditions ripe for disease. With seed starting, our biggest enemies are the fungal diseases known as damping off and botrytis. Both can wipe out a whole tray of seedlings in a few days. By the time you see it, it is usually too late to do anything.  Letting the soil dry out between waterings is the best way to prevent these diseases. On the flip side, avoid placing plants right above a radiator or near a wood/pellet stove as these dry the air and may dry the medium too quickly. Humidity domes are useful when getting seeds to sprout as they keep hold the moisture in, but should be removed a few days after the plants are up to increase air circulation and avoid diseases. 

Humidity domes can keep media moist for optimal germination, but should be taken off after sprouting to avoid fungal diseases. Photo by mrl2022.

The last problem has to do with timing. If plants are started too late, one could end up with tiny plants that will not fare well when placed in the ground. Plants should be tall enough to allow for planting and mulching, with a well-developed root system. Too little of a root system may cause the plant to wilt quicker and potentially become stunted or die if the gardener is not monitoring soil moisture. Also, the plant should be tall enough to have a thick layer of mulch placed around them. If the plants are too short, you may not be able to mulch properly and the plant could suffer from excessive weed pressure in the long-term, and drying out in the short-term. 

If you start your plants too early, they will be gigantic and falling over by the time they are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Many times, there is mechanical damage to the plant from the resulting flopping over in their plant trays. Although this is less of a problem with tomatoes that can be planted deep, other plants do not benefit from that and will look unsightly. Overgrown plants not only out grow their pots and flop over, but they may run out of nutrients too. This results in the yellowing and possible loss of the lower leaves (in favor of the new growth at the tip). The solution is to fertilize your plants to correct the nutritional deficiencies, but then this exacerbates the over-growth problem.

The final mistake is not fertilizing. Our little seedlings are growing in very small amounts of soil.  Although our “soilless mixes” often have some nutrients added in, they are only meant to help the plants get started. Once you have two sets of true leaves, it is a good idea to start fertilizing.  Follow package directions as too much is just as harmful as not enough. There are some mixes that have fertilizer built in for feeding the plants a longer period of time, so know your medium and adjust accordingly. You really want to avoid getting to the point of a nutritional deficiency.  This can stunt growth, affect the quality of plants, and alter the timing of moving outside due to inadequate height. 

So, if you plan on starting some seeds (and I hope you will), there are a number of things to keep in mind. You want bright light hung near the seedlings, proper room and soil temperatures, and watering only after the soil dries out. Figure out when you plan to put your plants in the ground and count back the number of days needed to germinate your seeds (this is temperature dependent).

Instructions on the backs of seed packets describe how early to start seeds indoors. Photo by mrl2022.

Also, do not forget the time it will take to move your seeds outside and gradually get them used to the sun and wind. This hardening off period takes about a week or two. A general rule is to start thinking about starting seeds around Saint Patrick’s Day, but this varies by plant species. The seed packets will tell you how early to start your seeds from your planned plant-out date. Fertilize your plants according to package directions when the second set of true leaves appear. And remember, no matter what methods you use to start seeds, keep a record of what worked and didn’t and adjust accordingly the following year.

Happy planting!

Matt Lisy

There is nothing better than sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night with a brand new seed catalogue that just came in the mail. Even better, a good half dozen or more! It seems this year is going to see even more people planting than the previous. Last year, due to COVID, more people were home than ever before. Pair that with unfounded worries over food security and it was a great time to be in the seed business. Many online retailers simply were “out of stock” with just about everything. I thought this year would be a little different with the rollout of the vaccine;  apparently people like their newfound hobby. Although stock seems to be better this year, I am still seeing “out of stock” on some favorites. I guess people will be planting again. The good part is that the retailers seem to be ready for this, not getting caught off guard like last year. I hope this trend continues, as one of the most environmentally friendly things we can do is grow our own food and support local farmers for the rest. Don’t forget, when we buy seed we are helping to support agriculture as well. Take a look at where the seeds come from – you might be surprised how many companies are located near you. 

Some ‘Amethyst’ green bean and ‘Mammoth’ sunflower seeds waiting to be planted this spring. Photo by mrl2021

So the question becomes, why would someone want to start their own flowers and vegetables from seed? The reasons are many. For some, it is a hobby, and a way to get into gardening before the outside is ready to cooperate. For others, it is a bit of security and a stress reducer, as they know they will have the plants they want this spring. It sometimes can be a cost savings, although by the time you buy the seed, the potting equipment, lights, other supplies, and electricity, you probably will not save much. Of course, if you continue this tradition year after year, it probably does save money in the long run. For me, it is a nice way to get the varieties that I want when they are not commercially available, and that is priceless!

The first thing to know about seed starting is that timing is everything. If you start too early, your plants get tall, fall over, and may run out of key nutrients. When you go to plant them, they are already so stressed and nutrient deprived and may not fare well. On the flip side, if you plant too late, your plants will be tiny with a poorly developed root system. As a result, they may not be able to withstand the stress of transplanting. Check your last frost date and read the information on the seed packets or seed catalogue and mark your calendar. You also will need to adjust from year to year depending on your lighting type and intensity. Each crop will have its own timing, so what works for one may not work for all. In addition, not all plants can tolerate transplanting.  Beans, squash, and cucumbers, for example, are best sown directly in the garden. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are less sensitive and can handle the transplanting process much better. If you must start delicate plants indoors, I would recommend using peat pots which can be placed directly into your garden, and will break down during the growing season. I usually rip some holes in the pots before planting, being careful not to disturb or break up the roots.  

In order to germinate, seeds need the proper moisture and temperature. It is a little like the story of Goldilocks and the porridge. Although the parameters are not as narrow, they do need to be in the right range. Germination can be sped up with a heat mat underneath. These heat mats, however, are pricey and need to be used with a controller to set the proper temperature. Even without a heat mat, seeds will germinate fine at room temperature (it will just take longer).  Don’t forget to take into account the time it will take for the seeds to germinate when you are estimating how far ahead to start your seeds. One other consideration is the size of the container you will germinate the seeds in. Although you can use pots, you might run out of space rather quickly. Many people prefer to use plug trays. There are different sizes for different sized seeds and growth requirements of the specific crop. Standard sizes include 128, 72, 50, etc. These refer to the number of plants you can fit into the tray. For really large seeds or large plants, you will need to switch from plug trays to actual pots. Plants must be sized to the appropriate sized plug or pot. Too big and the soil will fall apart when transplanting, too small and the plant will have stunted root growth and/or dry out too quick. Use any commercially available seed starting medium to fill your plug trays or pots. In addition, seeds may just be sprinkled into an open tray for sprouting and transplanted on from there.

A 72 plug tray. Photo by mrl2021

The plug trays will need to be kept in some kind of basin that holds water if you are starting them in the house. Be careful when purchasing/ordering these bottom trays so they do not have holes in them. Greenhouse growers prefer the holes so the water can drain freely. In the home, that could ruin the table or counter the trays are sitting on. You must be careful not to overwater.  Soggy seed starting medium leads to a plethora of diseases. One of the most common ones is “damping off” where your plants seem to rot right where the stem goes into the soil. Good air circulation and watering only when necessary can prevent a lot of trouble. Generally, the seed starting medium only needs to be kept moist during the germination process. Once the plants are up and growing, allow some drying between waterings to prevent many diseases.

A solid bottom tray with no holes. Photo by mrl2021.

After the seeds sprout, you need to give them light. The ambient room light will certainly not be enough, nor will placing the plants near a window (in most cases). Fortunately, it is easy and relatively cheap to provide lights for the plants. A simple old-school four-foot shop light is all that one needs. You’ll want to hang the lights a few inches above the growing plants. For bulbs, you can use one “cool white” and one “warm white” light bulb. If you are willing to spend some more money, you could buy a specialty plant grow bulb and a daylight deluxe light bulb. All of these bulbs have different spectral outputs (different colors of light) and are beyond the scope of this blog topic. Simply put, plants need lots of red and blue light to grow well. You can even find special LED plant lights with blue and red LEDs. These fixtures are much more expensive, but the bulbs are long lasting and do not lose output like the fluorescent ones. Either way, as your plants grow, you can raise the lights above them to accommodate their height. If you have different types of plants, some may grow faster than others. Do your best and develop a method that works for you. Follow the advice given here and enjoy the process! This should be an exciting and fun adventure. In a few months it will be time to put in the cool weather crops, so if you haven’t purchased your seeds yet, now is the time. Many local garden centers as well as big box stores carry a large selection of seeds. There are many mail order companies out there as well. The best part is, once you order from them, they will send you a catalogue the next year.  Not all companies are the same, and some specialize in certain types of plants. A word of warning – it is easy to imagine yourself planting away in the spring garden from your favorite chair during the winter. Buy what you can reasonably plant in a season, otherwise you may find yourself with a lot of leftover seeds. Use the information in the catalogue to figure out how many seeds you need for your space. Unused seed may germinate the next year, but they must be stored properly. Different plants have different lengths of time the seeds are viable. 

Fluorescent lights (daylight deluxe and plant grow bulbs) set up over houseplants overwintering in cellar. Photo by mrl2021.

Hopefully this post has inspired you to try starting some flowers and vegetables from seed. I recommend starting off small, with only one or two types or varieties of plant. Tomatoes are probably the most forgiving of our garden plants and are a great place to start.  As always, I recommend a soil test before planting out for best gardening results! 

Matt Lisy

Although winter officially started only a few days ago, the wet, rainy, snowy, and icy weather we’ve had over the past several weeks has put me into a bit of a funk. Don’t get me wrong: I am a Chicago native and have lived in New England for five years. I am well accustomed to a seemingly endless winter. But I think we can all agree that during a period of freezing, thawing, and mixed precipitation, the New England landscape leaves something to be imagined. Mud and dried grass muck up yards, bare deciduous trees leave our forests looking sparse, and the sky often remains one shade of gray. With only a few colors in the New England winter color wheel, I find myself dreaming of something decidedly more…green.

winter tree upright

Photo by Abby Beissinger

To help get myself out of this funk, I find myself thinking about planning the upcoming season’s garden. Usually December is too soon for me to start, but a recent post by University of Rhode Island Extension got me excited to plan early this year. In collaboration with Ocean State Job Lot, Burpee, and URI Master Gardeners, URI receives an annual donation of expired and unsold seed packs that they offer up to individuals, non-profits, schools, and more, to those living in New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

URI Free Seeds

The stock of free seeds include a large variety of herbs, flowers, and vegetables—you just pay the cost of shipping ($0.25 per seed packet). To learn more about the free seed program, click here, and for the order form click here. All orders must be received by January 13th, 2020, and URI Master Gardeners will fill orders on a first-come, first-served basis.

A few things to consider once you receive your seeds:

  1. While early garden planning is fun, planting your seeds too early will leave your seedlings leggy and weak. They will be unlikely to rebound and recover when the time comes to plant seedlings outside. Pay close attention to your seed packet on when it recommends starting seeds inside based on your location’s last frost. You may find this planting calendar handy when selecting the date to start seeds inside.

Seed Packet

Photo adapted from Gardenerspath.com

  1. Since you won’t be planting your seeds for at least a few months, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator to increase their shelf life. Check out this Lady Bug article for more seed storage tips.

seed jar

Photo by Tenth Acre Farm

  1. When it is time to seed, select trays or containers that are 2-3 inches deep and have a drainage hole to allow for excess water to move through. If you plan to reuse containers from a previous season, make sure to sanitize them in a 1:10 dilute bleach solution to prevent the spread of disease causing agents (pathogens).

seed tray

Photo by DIY.com

  1. Select a soil-less media made for seed starting—not your average potting mix or soil from your backyard. The seed starting mix usually contains a combination of peat moss, vermiculite, and some fertilizers that provide ideal conditions for seed germination.

 

  1. Without adequate light, robust seedlings can be difficult to produce. Supplemental light is often needed. Refer to this fact sheet for more indoor seed growing tips and suggestions for lighting setups.

lighting setup

Photo by Thea & Bob Fry

 

Hopefully these free seeds will perk up those winter blues, and have you thinking about planning your 2020 garden early too.

 

–Abby Beissinger

Late March and early April in Connecticut are the time of year that we gardeners dream about through the long, cold winter. The temperatures are on the rise, the days have lengthened, the soil is workable, and even if we do receive a snowfall it generally doesn’t last for long. The Lenten Rose (Hellebore) has bloomed and the crocus, grape hyacinth, daffodils are in their glory, soon to make way for the tulips which will follow. Yellow daffodils paired with the deep purple-blue of the grape hyacinth is one of my favorite combinations.

The pussy willows have come out and the forsythia is in bloom which means that it is the anecdotal time to put down the crabgrass preventer. The pre-emergent herbicide needs to be applied and watered in before the crabgrass seeds that were dropped last year germinate. Please visit our page on Crabgrass Control for more information on this yearly bane of homeowners.

Pussy Willow

For me this time of year is about planning this year’s vegetable garden and starting the growing season. It starts with plotting out the area that we have allotted for our vegetable garden (its 15’ x 25’) which includes four raised beds that are 3’ x 5’ each. There are many ways to do a garden plan. The simplest way, and the way that I started some years ago, is to put pencil to paper and sketch out a rough drawing.

The next step up is to use graph paper to plot out the actual footage available. This is the manner that I have progressed to over the years. With pencil, ink, and colored pencils I draw the placement of this year’s plantings. I refer to prior year’s plans so that I can rotate varieties among the beds as much as possible although I don’t have a very large space. There are several established perennial plantings, such as asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, and chives that do not get rotated.

Chives

These crops are placed around the perimeters of the garden, mostly to the east and south, where they will not block the sun from other plantings. The asparagus spears are just starting to emerge, the chives are growing, and the rhubarb was a perfect size to divide and replant.

A recent post on our UConn Home & Garden Education Center  Facebook page shared a link to many vegetable garden planners that can be found on-line ranging from the very simple to those that allow you to enter your actual plot size, vegetable varieties and succession plantings. There is even an app!

So, plan in place, it’s time to start planting. There are so many crops that enjoy a cool weather start such as peas, spinach, kale, arugula, radishes, beets, bok choy, and carrots. I have been working with my daughter Hannah on some plans for garden beds that her early education class will be working on this spring. In doing research on some classroom-appropriate experiments I came across one that compares the growth rate of seeds germinated (prior to planting) vs. un-germinated (direct sown). I usually soak beet seeds before they are planted but this year I germinated all of the varieties that are planted in the early spring, laying the seeds out on a damp paper towel and covering them with another damp towel.

Pre-germination

Just a side note, did you know that each beet ‘seed’ is actually a hard shell that encloses 3 seeds? As they sprout you can not only see three distinct seedlings (the row on the left in the image below) but the colors reflect the variety of beet also, whether red or yellow.

2 Days Later

Within days most of the seeds were well-sprouted and I planted them in the garden in their selected spots. It will be interesting to see if this gives them a head-start and if Hannah’s class gets similar results. They will also be running an experiment that starts seeds in solutions of differing pH levels from base to acidic to see what seeds prefer. If you would like to know the pH level of your garden soil and what your crops require then a soil sample to the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory.

One thing to keep in mind when planting is done as a classroom activity is the length of the available growing season. There is little point in planting vegetables that will need care and be ready to harvest during the summer months when school is not in session. Our choices therefore were cool-weather plants that would be ready to harvest before school dismisses for the summer. Among these are snow peas that will mature in 60 days, Indian Summer spinach (35 days), Little Finger carrots (65 days), lettuce, arugula and spinach (35-40 days), Early Wonder beets (60 days) and Cherry Belle radishes that will be ready to harvest in just 22 days.

Just think about it. In a little more than a month we can be enjoying a freshly picked, tasty salad that is the harbinger of more good things to come!

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton