Saturday, February 16, 2013

Starting seeds indoors - the warm-up

I think I'm not much different from most gardeners when I say that the prospect of starting seeds indoors makes me anxious. I've dabbled in it in the past, but those efforts basically amounted to sticking some soil in a container, adding a seed, and leaving it on the kitchen counter. Needless to say nothing much ever came of it and I stuck with buying my starts from my friendly local nursery.

The problem with the friendly local nursery is that their selection is severely limited, and by the time you can actually put anything in the ground here in Oregon the ones you find in the greenhouses are rootbound (the roots are formed into a clump in the under-sized pot) and sometimes quite leggy (their stems are long because they've been reaching for the light).

So no more nursery plants for me! Sorry Roger's, we've enjoyed coming to your yard all these years but we're grown-up gardeners now.

No small part of my newfound confidence comes from the fact that starting seeds is this week's topic in my Master Gardener night class. I'm doing the best to emulate the method used by Master Gardener Cindy Wise, who makes it look easy. Here we go.

The first thing is I've got these Jiffy trays. The inserts that come in them are somewhat small, but I'm only starting lettuce and spinach, and I'm prepared to transplant them early. Otherwise I would just put whatever pots I want to use into the tray and cover them. Cindy demonstrated making really simple starter pots out of newspaper by wrapping around the bottom of a soup can. I'll try to demonstrate that later.

Here are the seeds. Yeah, these are cheapie generic seeds. The other thing that is cheap in this process is the seed starting mix. I'm not even going to show you the bag, because the most important thing that needs to be printed on a bag of potting soil is "sterile", and the one that I bought six months ago doesn't even claim to be. "Sterile" means that there's very little chance of pathogens being in the soil. I'm willing to take a chance on this. It's also not organic, which is not a deal-breaker for me. But next time I'll be a little more careful.

I should note that I freeze my all my seeds in a glass pickle jar. I don't even put in any desiccant  though I should. I have excellent rates of germination even with seeds that are fairly old.

So first I put the mix into the trays. I just piled it on there, and then I took them out and tapped them down to help the mix settle. I topped again, and tapped again, and then did something Cindy recommended. I put water on top to help the soil settle still more, topped one more time, and then it looked like this.

It settled quite a bit, and made a nice continuous surface. Why not just pack it down? Well, if you over-compress the mix it won't hold water as well, and might be less welcoming to those little bitty roots and emergent stems.

I put the seeds down - I think I over-did the lettuce quite a bit, but managed to get exactly two spinach per cell. Then I put a thin layer of mix to just barely cover. The rule of thumb that Cindy gave was, "as deep as the seed is tall". 

So, young seeds need light. To help with this Cindy recommends these cheap "under cabinet" lights. I bought this one at Bi-Mart for about $11. You don't need full spectrum light for seedlings. 

And here is the light balanced on top of the tray. The light should be 2" from the seedlings. As they come up (and the tray comes off) I'll need something to hang the light from. She had nice simple plans for a PVC structure.

One thing I don't have yet is a heating pad. These will be in our dining room, for now, with the southern exposure, so maybe they will be okay. I'll take some measurements and post back. But when I move this operation out to the garage I will surely want some pads. I will be putting the light on a timer set for 14 hours of light, but the timer is somewhere in the garage, and I couldn't find it.

As you can see in that picture there's water in the bottom of the tray. Watering from the bottom prevents the seeds from being disturbed. The mix should easily draw it up through capillary action. I was warned against allowing water to stand and encourage decay, but I'm not sure how to walk that line. I'll look into it and experiment and keep you posted.


  1. I hope you tell us soon about the soil that is in your raised beds, that you grew all those vegetables in. Did you buy it? Did you mix it? How did you enrich it?

    At least I know now what I've been forgetting to do when I sprout seeds!
    --Grandma Books

    1. Well, Mom, some of the soil was already available in the yard. I added 6 yards of mixed garden soil from a local supplier at the beginning. I also had another yard or so of low-grade compost. Since then I have added about another 4 yards of commercial compost, 2 yards of my own compost, and also a couple yards of sod that I composted down. But many of my beds are still too low. Soil building is a big part of the job!