Seed Starting Basics

by Charlotte Walker

There are few signs of spring out here in the Maritimes right now, but little birds are starting to appear in the yard sweetly chirping away,  and the rhubarb is starting to emerge through the snow. The promise of spring is close and we are ready. Impatiently waiting for mother nature to wave her wand.

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Our greenhouse is starting to maintain above zero temps most nights, and the soil has thawed to be workable. We have planted some of the fast growing cold season crops like, Lettuce, spinach, kale & radishes. There is a smattering of edible poppies, nasturtiums and peas planted as well.

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I have been busy planning the outdoor gardens, and we have hundreds of little seedlings growing happily in our dining room. Here are a few pointers on getting your seeds started.

Planning greenhouse

It is a good idea to have planned your yields (how much food you need to grow), created a layout of your garden (to make sure you have enough space allocated to grow this food)  and purchased sufficient seeds.  This is a rough plan of our greenhouse. I am still making adjustments to it.

Hardiness Zone

In order to purchase the right types of seeds. You need to know your hardiness zone. Some plants won’t be suitable in your region.

Here are some links to various plant hardiness zone charts by country:

US

Canada

Australia

United Kingdom

hardiness map

Seed Suppliers

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We grow only heirloom or organic varieties. The number of heirloom seed suppliers is growing in number each year. Once you know your zone, you can much more easily find suitable seeds. We have put together a list of Canadian suppliers, it is not exhaustive but it might be helpful to you.  I do recommend that when you are staring out, it is often best to seek out  a local heirloom/organic seed supplier is your best starting point. They will be most familiar with what grows best in your specific zone.

Organizing your seeds

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Read your seed packets to familiarize yourself with the instructions. Sort your “direct sow” into one pile, and your “sow indoors” seeds into another. If you have not already done so, make a list of how many of each seed type in your sow indoors pile you need to start. Most often if there is a choice, I will direct sow.

Seed starting date

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Seeds need to be started at different times. Using your planner of choice, or manually working back from your last frost date and the details on your packet you can determine when to start each particular plant type.

In my planning tool, the blue line represents the date that I should be starting my seeds indoors.

Keep in mind that this date is a guide. Weather is unpredictable and you could be planting sooner or for many of us last year was an incredibly late start to the season.

Frost Date Charts

Canada

US

United Kingdom

 Australia

Water & warmth

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Initially you need to start your seeds in a warm and damp (but not soggy) environment. Do not over water as this can promote mould. Keeping your trays on heat mats is excellent if you have them and covering them with plastic domes or plastic kitchen wrap until they germinate will help hold the warm air in. Really, you just need to find a spot in the house that is consistently warm.

 

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When I am growing a lot of plants, this usually means we have our grow lights running. I sit newly planted trays on top of my lighting assembly to germinate, it acts just like a heat mat.  There is enough warmth to help with germination and it uses no extra electricity. I also sit my sour dough starter on here and our ginger bug (anything I am trying to ferment).

Light

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Once the plants have germinated you will want to remove the plastic covering and  keep them under lights for 16 hours per day. If you don’t have any lighting, do your best to get them into as much sunlight as possible. A problem with insufficient lighting can be legginess, like these poor seedlings shown here.

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Start with the lights as close to the plants as possible and raise the light up as the plants grow. This will promote nice healthy growth.

Water the soil, not the seedlings. Be gentle and keep the soil moist.

Be sure to rotate your trays (especially if you are relying on natural light). If your plants are leaning to the left for example rotate the tray. Rotating daily will help strengthen the stems.

Hardening off

When it is getting close to your planting date, you want to start introducing your plants to the outdoors gradually. I will bring the trays outside for an hour the first few days, two hours the next and so on. Admittedly I am not religious about this and sometimes forget them outside for half the day but the gentler you are the less risk of losing any.

Soil-less Dirt

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You can buy a pre-mix of seed starting mix at garden centers and places like Canadian Tire and Home Depot. You can also make your own mix. I tend to use what I have in the greenhouse, this year it was a mix of peat moss & vermiculite and a tiny bit of compost that I sifted to remove large particles from.

Containers

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I save and scrounge up pots, trays and containers. People at the garden centres have always let me take a tray or two extra when I am buying a few plants. I prefer the larger pots that fit 18 to a tray. The teeny little plug trays that you find at garden supply centres are excellent for getting a lot of seeds started in a small space but I find that they dry out too quickly. I have a hard time keeping them watered.

When re-using containers, be sure to wash them well with hot soapy water. I try and do this in the summer after I have finished planting so they are ready to go in the spring when I need them.

Grow Lights

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For years I have struggled with leggy seedlings. Moving trays around from window to window to catch the sunlight. Grow lights were just outside of the budget. This year we realized very quickly that the frequent cloudy days were creating a cocktail for the saddest looking seedlings yet. Food production is very important to us so we decided to invest in grow lights.

One thing is for certain, if you are starting seeds indoors, supplementary lighting makes all the difference.

I looked at some commercial kits that offered shelves and lights, but the high price and the lack of ruggedness just didn’t suit us. So we built our own. You can really economize as much as you want. Really, all you need is a sturdy shelf, a shop light assembly and some T5 fluorescent bulbs.

We decided to get some commercial shelving and lights. This is going to be used for a very long time and we wanted it to last. It is also on large castors so easily movable and the shelves can be adjusted so very versatile. Our rack is comprised of;

1 x Heavy duty greenhouse rack (bought used on kijiji) The shelves are 5’L x 2′ D

3 – 4’L x 2’W Florescent light kits, including 6 – T5 bulbs per light fixture

Our kit cost $750 CDN plus gas and time to pick up the shelves (which included a tour of a massive greenhouse). I am able to fit five trays on each shelf. A three tier four bulb model from Lee Valley that fits only two trays per shelf is $995. Ours fits fifteen trays, so overall I am quite pleased.

I have ordered some adjustable pulleys so that I can lower and lift these lights with ease, the cord they come with is not adjustable. These lights daisy chain together which is a nice added feature, keeping things tidy.

This evening, I sit typing this in our open concept home and the glow from the lights is reaching me up in the loft. Having all of these seeds coming to life around us is therapeutic for my family. I love being surrounded by plant life.

Happy Planting!

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4 comments

annie1948 February 14, 2017 - 5:33 pm

Any advice on Winter Sowing? (in milk jugs etc)

Reply
Charlotte Walker February 14, 2017 - 7:07 pm

Hi! I haven’t written anything on winter sowing. My adventures in that department are still fairly limited. Here is an article from a really good website that I follow that might provide you with what you are looking for! http://104homestead.stfi.re/winter-sowing-by-zone/

Reply
Kathleen February 7, 2018 - 4:31 am

You mention you purchased 4×2 ft , 6xt5 grow lights, can I ask what brand you bought?

Reply
Charlotte Walker February 7, 2018 - 11:01 am

Hi Kathleen,

These are the ones we bought. http://www.growlights.ca/growlights/t5-ho-grow-lights.html

Be aware: this company did not pack the lights very well for shipping so we had to return one of the lights because it was damaged on arrival. They replaced it no questions asked but .. it’s something to be aware of.

Reply

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