I’ve got a lot of seeds I haven’t used up from the past two or three years, and I promised myself I wouldn’t buy more until I’ve used what I’ve got.
However, for each year a seed is saved, its germination rate goes way down. For example, I have some commercial celery seeds from three years ago that might not sprout at all. I’m also starting some pepper seeds I saved myself two years ago, another pepper from Seed Savers last year, and some lavender I picked up at a chain hardware store this spring (I have trouble remembering to be disciplined when it comes to gardening shit).
With such a variety of ages and sources, there’s no telling what will make it to harvest, especially with the older seeds. But it’s either throw them away or throw them in dirt to see what happens. Here’s my general plan of attack for starting anything from seed:
1. Find out how early the seed needs to be started indoors.
The celery, peppers, and lavender I’m working with all need roughly eight to 10 weeks’ head start before my area’s last frost date. That’s the date I can reasonably expect there will be no more frost that could kill my young plants. In Omaha, Neb., the last frost date is May 10. Counting back from there, I figure out that these seeds need to get started in early March.
The seed packets usually tell you how much start time they need, but I check that against a couple of my favorite gardening books and maybe a Google search too. Veggies are like dogs — everyone’s got an opinion on how to work with ’em.
2. Collect your supplies.
You will need:
- Your seeds. Obvs.
- More potting soil than you think. I typically keep a 50lb bag around. It never goes to waste.
- A seed tray, definitely with a clear plastic cover and preferably with a heating mat to go underneath. Your seeds will be slower to start without that extra, gentle heat.
- A spray bottle of water. Save the watering can for grown-up plants.
- Something to poke holes in dirt. I like to use a wooden kebab, but pencils, pens, etc. all work.
- A light source for after the seeds have germinated. If you don’t have good natural light for a few hours, get a grow light.
- Stickers and a marker for labeling the edge of the tray. No, you will not remember how many cells are bell peppers and how many are Thai chilis in two months.
3. Prep the seed tray.
Don’t try to fill each cell in the seed tray individually. You’ll get annoyed. Dump a bunch of potting soil in the middle of the tray and scrape the dirt into the cells. Don’t pack them down yet, just fill them like you would a cup of flour.
With every cell filled, spray down the tray with your water bottle. Much, much easier and cleaner than trying to pour water over these shallow trays. Anyway, you want to achieve “just barely soaking,” not “drowning.” If some cells look shallower than others now, fill in with a bit more potting soil.
4. Plant your seeds!
The depth you plant your seeds depends on the size of the seed. Celery seeds are beyond tiny, so they just get sprinkled right on the surface of the soil. Another spritz with water, a tiny bit of packing with your fingertip, and those are “planted.”
Pepper seeds are a bit bigger and go about 1/4″ below the surface. My stars, do not bother to measure. Take your poking stick and make a small, shallow hole in the cell.
Pop a couple seeds into each cell, three if your seeds are older than a year. Germination rate, remember? We don’t want to waste space on dead seeds. If more than one plant starts to grow in a cell, choose the strongest looking seedling and carefully pull out the other one. Thinning, baby, it’s harsh.
Lightly pack the soil over the seeds, topping off shallow cells with more soil if necessary. Finish with another spritz of water, pop the cover on the tray, and set the tray on its warming pad. YOU HAVE PLANTED.
5. Don’t forget to maintain them.
These trays are shallow, and you never want to drown them with too much water, so they can dry out quickly. Check on them every day and plan to spritz the trays at least every other day.
It’ll be a couple weeks before you see any growth, but when you do, take the lid off immediately. Too much humidity can cause damping off, and your seedlings need the extra light anyway. I’ve got my plants near some great windows, but make sure yours have at least a grow light close over them if nothing else.
There you go! You’re on your way to raising your very own garden right from the very beginning!
What’d I miss? Any other tips for starting from seed out there?