My friends…spring is finally upon us.
At least, where most of you live. Where I live, we’re still buried in the snow, and there’s another blizzard expected tomorrow.
However, I’m all for being optimistic, and I’ve got to say, spring is one of my most favorite times of the year. Second only to incubating chicks and birthing piglets and lambs (okay, so my math’s off…fourth only?!) starting seeds has got to be one of my favorite tasks this time of the year. It makes all the hard work turning the compost, building raised beds, tending to animals, and everything else ALL worth it.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to commit a blunder that sacrifices an entire season’s worth of growing success.
Don’t be like me. Don’t make these mistakes. I can’t say I’ve made all of them, but I’ve definitely made my fair share. Consider these tips and avoid these mistakes, and you’ll fast-track your way to green thumb glory come May.
Starting too soon is a rookie mistake when it comes to growing seeds indoors. Many people start their plants in the dead of winter – which, for some plants, like celery, is a necessity.
However, other plants should not be started until the weather has warmed a bit. Exposing your plants to cold air will stress them, even if they are still inside – most homes are drafty, folks. Remember that most plants aren’t ready to go outside until about five weeks after you’ve started the seeds.
I’m going to be honest – I am one hundred percent guilty of this myself. I get so excited when I get those glossy seed catalogs in the mail in January, and often, particularly when there’s wine involved, I get into a bit of a spending spree.
Don’t be like me. Don’t get into a spending spree.
Limit yourself only to the seeds you know you will have time (and space!) to plant. Your resources are finite, and you need to remember that when you are ordering enough seeds to cover the entire continent of Africa. Stick with simple seeds, particularly if it’s your first time around. My recommendations for first-timers? Try herbs, like basil or oregano, and then progress to simple plants like tomatoes, lettuce, or zinnias.
Keep records of what plants need to be started indoors, and when, and you’ll be much more organized (and less stressed!) when it’s time to get the ball rolling.
Whatever you do, don’t pull soil from your garden and use it on your seedlings. This is something we’ve never really had the opportunity to do anyway because when we start our seeds indoors, the ground is still usually frozen solid.
There are tons of reasons as to why you should avoid using regular ol’ dirt for your seedlings. Yes, it may be free, but baby seedlings are vulnerable. They are more susceptible to diseases, pests, and infection. You need to use sterile soil so that you can avoid killing your seedlings with fungus or insects.
Use a high-quality seed starting mix or potting mix. If you absolutely must use regular soil, heat it in your oven until it has reached 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and leave it there for a while. Your house will smell weird, but for all you die-hards out there (I’m looking at you, hardcore off-the-grid-ers), it’s a viable option.
Too much or too little water can provide an equally potent kiss of death when it comes to your plants. This can be one of the most difficult and trying parts of growing plants indoors, particularly because seedlings are so delicate and there is minimal room for error.
You should aim to keep your soil damp, but not wet. To help conserve moisture, consider covering your container with plastic until the seeds germinate. This will lock in water as well as heat – just make sure you remove it as soon as the seedlings emerge to prevent mold or other fungal growths. You can also purchase a watering system that will take much of the guesswork out of the equation for you.
When you water, water deeply, and do so from the bottom. This will let your plants soak up water roots-first, so you have a reduced chance of overwatering them. You should check your plants for dryness once a day, but don’t feel obligated to water. As long as the soil is still damp to the touch, you are good to go.
Seedlings need a ton of light, no matter what anyone tells you about “that one time they were able to start their seeds in the basement.” False. You need a lot of light, and to be frank, light can be a tough commodity to come by in the late winter months.
Here’s the brutal truth: you probably won’t have enough natural light in your home to keep up with your plant’s growth. Even a south-facing window often isn’t enough light to provide your seedlings with the light they crave. Rely on natural lighting alone, and your plants could become leggy or stunted as a result.
Instead, invest in some artificial light. Either get a grow light designed specifically for plants or place some large fluorescent shop lights above your plants. Ideally, you should hang the lights from the ceiling on chains, which will allow you to keep the lights closer to the seeds before they have emerged from the ground. Then, you can adjust the height as they grow taller.
No matter how you choose to provide your plants with light, know that they will need about twelve to sixteen hours of light per day. You can hook up a timer to make adjusting your lighting a bit easier, or do this manually, but remember that light is key in helping your plants thrive in the early days.
Seeds are finicky, and it’s important that you check each individual seed packet to determine how deeply your seeds need to be planted. Most should be planted on the more shallow side, but you can always find this information with a little bit of research.
But it’s important.
While some seeds require total darkness to germinate, others prefer a little bit of light. There’s an old homesteader trick that says to plant seeds twice or three times as deep as they are wide. If you’re still not sure, err on the side of caution -plant seeds a bit more shallow than you think they might need to be planted.
If your seeds require light to germinate, make sure they make good contact with your soil, but don’t cover them totally. Press the soil down to make a firm surface, then place the seed atop the soil and gently push down, ensuring that the seed is still somewhat exposed.
Every year, my husband and I tell ourselves we are going to be better about labeling, and every year, we fail miserably. We usually have to resort to the seedling “taste test,” but I’m sure we have jars of dehydrated “lemon balm” that are actually basil. This is an exaggeration, of course, but we suck at plant identification, and figuring out what a plant is during its early stages is confusing and downright frustrating.
Save yourself the aggravation, don’t do what we do, habitually, and LABEL THINGS. Use popsicle sticks. Use actual labels. Write with Sharpies. Write with a pencil. WHO CARES. Just for the LOVE of God, please label.
Here in the Great White North, it’s cold until May – and we’ve had snow even then. So our temperatures are usually colder than those experienced in other areas of the country. However, for seeds to germinate, they need to be nice and toasty.
That’s one of the benefits of starting seeds indoors – you have ultimate control over the weather and temperature even when Mother Nature is feeling moody and doesn’t want to cooperate. While we’re at it, could somebody please get that girl a glass of wine, or a tub of ice cream, or something? She is a hot mess this year.
Seeds must be kept at temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees in order to germinate. You can put them on a seedling mat to keep them warm or use a small heater set on a timer. Once the seeds sprout, you can do away with the heater. They will be able to tolerate fluctuating temperatures within reason and your light source will provide the heat they need to thrive.
If there’s one question that gardeners ask all the time, it’s, “Why did my tomato plant die as soon as I planted it?” There is such an obvious solution, yet many people overlook the value of hardening off your plants. First of all, you need to avoid bringing your plants outside too early. When your plants are young and vulnerable, bringing them outside and planting them is akin to a kiss of death. You need to make sure the weather has warmed and even then, you need to coddle your plants to the extreme.
Expose your plants to the elements gradually, ideally over the course of two weeks. Place your seedlings outside for slightly more time every day, starting with just a couple of hours and then gradually increasing it to the entire day. This will slowly acclimate your plants to stressors like wind, sun, and other factors before they go directly into the ground.
This is the worst mistake you can make, and one you will definitely regret. No matter how challenging, time-consuming, or frustrating starting seeds indoors may be, whatever you do, don’t give up.
It will be worth it.
Even if you make a million and a half mistakes, or if you make the same mistakes over again.
It WILL be worth it.
What other tips do you have for avoiding errors while starting seeds indoors? Make sure you give us your best advice in the comments, and be sure to follow us on Instagram (@jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) for regular updates!