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Guide to Seed Starting – Part 1

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Three years ago my farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) gave me a whole bunch of cayenne peppers. I had no idea what to do with them, so I asked around and Mad Art Lab’s very own Surly Amy suggested I dry them in the oven to make red pepper flakes. The red pepper flakes were so delicious that when the next summer rolled round, I anxiously awaited new batches of cayenne peppers from my CSA. However, after weeks of getting seemingly every fruit and vegetable other than peppers in my CSA, I finally asked them what was up and was informed that the farm that I get my CSA from no longer grows peppers. Sadly, I had to go that whole year without homemade red pepper flakes.

The following year I decided to take matters into my own hands. I have a roof I can access that gets a ton of sun. I should just grow my own damn cayenne peppers and make pints and pints of dried red pepper flakes out of them. I was unsure if cayenne pepper seedlings would be available at my local garden center, so to make sure I’d have cayenne pepper seedlings once it was warm enough to plant them outdoors, I decided to try growing them from seed. And thus began my seed starting adventures.

Growing from seed was so successful last year that this year I’ve been growing a whole bunch of crops from seed and will be expanding my rooftop garden to accommodate them. I also did a lot of research on seed starting and took a seed starting class at Peterson Garden Project in Chicago.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m basically a seed starting expert now (doing something once and taking a class if how you become an expert, right?). So it’s time I share my new-found knowledge with others. If you want to start growing plants from seeds and particularly if you live in an area that gets cold in the winter and need to do your seed starting indoors, consider this a guide to help you get the most out of your seedlings.

Step 1: Get some seeds!

There are a ton of ways to get seeds. You can buy seeds at a store or gardening center. You can buy specialized hybrid seeds online. You can get seeds from a friend who grows some veggies you are particularly fond of. If you do get seeds from a friend’s garden, just remember that if they used any hybrid seeds, the offspring seeds from the hybrid plant may not carry all the characteristics of the original plant or may not grow or fruit at all. If they used a heirloom variety of seeds, you can use those seeds to grow a plant that is similar to the plant the seeds came from. A lot of plants in grocery stores are also grown from hybrid seeds and many of them do not carry viable seeds. So, as much as it would be fun to buy a tomato at a grocery store and then grow your own tomatoes from its seeds, that often will not be successful. If you do want to get seeds from grocery store produce, do some research first to determine which veggie types generally are grown from heirloom seeds.

Make sure to plan out your garden in this stage. Some plants need more sun than others and some plants are happiest in an area that has partial shade for much of the day. Plan ahead so you know what type of space you will have and what plants will be happiest in that location.

Step 2: Plant the seeds!

Before starting your seedlings, read the seed packet (or google info on the seeds if you don’t have a seed packet). Some plants like cucumber and peas do not transplant well. Their seed packets will tell you to direct plant, which means planting directly outside or in the pot where they will live out their plant lives. You can still try to grow them indoors and then transplant, but it’s possible they won’t do as well as they would if you direct planted them. If you are growing in pots, you can plant them early indoors then move the entire pot outdoors once the weather warms up. I’ve been doing that this year with my cucumbers and as of now they appear to be thriving.

The seed packet will also tell you when to plant them. The earlier you plant the seeds, the longer the growing season will be and the more harvest you will get, but plant too early and the plant will start declining because it’s ready to go outside but the weather in your area might still be too cold for it. Some plants like kale and leeks are cold weather crops that can be planted in the spring and survive through a frost or two. Other plants like tomatoes will die if it drops below freezing at night even once. The more a plant can stand the cold, the earlier you should start your seeds.

Some plants, like green onions and leeks will have special instructions you need to follow. Make sure to read the seed packet carefully before assuming that planting seeds for all plants are alike.

You are also going to need to get yourself a seed starting kit. There are tons of varieties, but the good news is that it doesn’t matter which one you get. You want something that has a lot of little plant pots and a tray underneath so you can water them from the bottom. I typically use plastic ones, but you can also get some that are biodegradable. Just remember that biodegradable pots can sometimes soak up some of the water that is meant for the soil and dry up your plants, so they need to be watered more often. You can also make your own pots with little cups or containers or whatever you have on hand. In general, it doesn’t matter what you use as long as it’s small and has a hole in the bottom for water to drain.

Once you’re ready to plant the seeds, soak them in water overnight. This step is not essential (they should still germinate if you don’t soak) but soaking can soften the seed casing to help them germinate faster. Once they’ve been soaked and softened, you’re ready to plant. Use a good potting soil that is made for seedlings. Wet it and fill each pot loosely with the wet soil. Some seed starting kits come with a soil tablet, so just follow the directions on the packet if you have that type of kit. Check the seed packet to determine how deep to plant the seeds and then plant them. I like to put 2 seeds into each pot to double the likelihood that I will get one viable germination in each pot.

Two glasses with water and pea seeds in each labeled "mommy" and "daddy."
Soaking pea seeds. Sugar Daddies on the left and Sugar Snaps on the right.

This is also a great time to start your garden diary. The first time I heard about a garden diary I scoffed at the idea. I didn’t need to write anything down. I was sure that I would remember what I did and what worked and what didn’t. Of course, when the next year rolled around I couldn’t remember anything I had done and when. I wish I had kept a garden diary my first year of seed starting so I could have referenced it my second year. Lesson learned. This year I’ve been keeping a plant diary using the VegetableTree app, but now that I’m a couple weeks in I’ve already regretted it. Using a physical notebook as my garden diary would have been much easier than any app. Next year I will definitely be switching to a notebook. Write down when you plant the seeds and when they germinate and when you fertilized and transplant and periodically check in with how they are doing. How tall are they? When do they get their first bud? All this information will be helpful to you the next year and you’ll be glad you kept track.

Step 3: Wait for the seeds to germinate!

Now that you’ve planted the seeds, it’s a waiting game until they germinate. While the seeds are getting ready to germinate, they do not need sun but they do need warmth and humidity. Find the warmest place in your house that you can put them and put them there. I like to use my bathroom because I have heated floors that go on in the mornings that keep the plants nice and toasty. You can also buy heat mats to put under the seed starter to keep them warm.

Most seed starter kits come with a mini greenhouse cover. This is the time to use it to make sure the moisture doesn’t dissipate. If you don’t have a kit with a greenhouse cover, you can also cover it in something like saran wrap. Now you just have to wait. If the soil feels dry, water the plants from the bottom by putting water in the tray underneath them.

Check the seed packet for when you can expect it to germinate. I’ve generally found that if I have my pots in a sufficiently warm location and I soaked the seeds before planting, they often will germinate much earlier than the seed package says they would. This year I planted some basil seeds which I expected to germinate in at least a week, but two days later I was surprised to already see some of them poking through the soil. Some plants like peppers take much longer to germinate. I can attest that it can be boring and demoralizing to check the pots day after day for up to two weeks without seeing any changes, but don’t worry, they will germinate when they are ready and it will be worth the wait.

Come back to Mad Art Lab next Thursday for Part 2 of the Seed Starting Guide where I’ll tell you how to take care of your baby seedlings and train them for their final adventure to the outdoors.

All photos by Jamie Bernstein. Featured photo is technically of seedlings that were bought not grown from seed, but it was too cute not to use.

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