With winter-like weather still in the forecast, garden season seems so far away. But it’s actually time to get the garden started unless you plan to buy seedlings from a nursery center. Seeds for vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, celery, cabbage and other Cole crops must be planted indoors so they have a jump start before they are transplanted out in the garden. For us, now is the time to get the garden started.
Why Start Your Own Garden
There are many reasons for starting your own transplants. Cost is one. A packet of seeds is cheap especially when you consider how many seeds it contains. Often a packet has enough seeds to last for several growing seasons if properly stored. Compare this to buying a pack of six plants that costs considerably more than the packet with dozens of seeds in it.
Variety is another. Garden centers usually carry popular varieties whose name is well known to the general population. But those varieties may not be the best for your particular geographic location or they may not be the best for whatever end use you have in mind. For example, because I make and can lots of sauce, I grow many paste tomatoes. I’ve tried many varieties of paste tomatoes over the years and have settled on Amish Paste as being one of the best. But this is not a commonly available variety in any garden center I’ve ever visited so I must raise the seedlings myself if I want this variety in my garden.
Transporting pest and diseases to my garden is another reason for raising my own. One year I had to buy some pepper plants. Unbeknown to me they were infested with aphids. I was plagued with that problem the entire season.
Lastly, growing my own transplants makes me more self-reliant, especially if I use the seed I saved from the previous year. I’m not depending on others to raise seedlings for my garden. If your goal is self-sufficiency, learning how to raise healthy seedlings is an integral part of that goal.
Sterilize Your Potting Soil
Before any seeds can be planted, you must first prepare your starting soil mix. You can buy sterilized potting soil from any garden supply store but we opt for a homemade mix that uses our own garden soil. In the fall, before the ground freezes, we collect buckets of earth from the garden and store it inside. When we lived in northern Saskatchewan on a remote lake we stored the buckets in the greenhouse and brought them into the house to thaw when I needed them. Here in Nova Scotia, we can store the buckets of soil in the root cellar, greenhouse, or outbuilding bringing them inside at the appropriate time.
Garden soil must first be sterilized before it can be used to start seeds otherwise your seedlings will be at high risk for damping off, a fungal disease that kills young seedlings. The tiny plants can be fine one day and keel over the next unless precautions are taken. Close inspection of an affected seedling reveals the stem has a pinched appearance right at the soil level. Before long the little plant succumbs to the disease. Once the plants grow and develop what are called true leaves they are at less risk for damping off. But getting them to that point is problematic unless you sterilize your soil.
To do this I first remove large pieces of debris such as twigs and pebbles from my stored garden soil. If there is an overwhelming amount of extraneous material the soil can be sifted, although I personally have never done this. Next I add water so the soil is wet but not mud. Then I place the wet soil in a metal pan and cover it with foil. I heat this in the oven set at 275 degrees F until the soil reaches 160 degrees F. Using a meat thermometer inserted into the soil is helpful since too high a temperature creates salts that may be damaging to seedlings while too low a temp allows dangerous plant pathogens to survive.
Why wet the soil? First wet soil doesn’t smell as bad as dry soil during the heating process. Second and most importantly the steam generated from the wet soil is what helps to sterilize it.
Once the soil is sterilized, cool it and keep it covered with the foil until ready to use. To use, I mix equal parts of perlite and vermiculite with the soil. So in essence my mixture is 1/3 sterilized garden soil, 1/3 perlite and 1/3 vermiculite. I place this mixture in my sanitized plant tray.
My plant tray is a black plastic tray I purchased from a garden center. With care, it’s reusable and in fact I’ve used the same flat for about 15 years.
To sanitize my plant tray I first wash it with soapy water and rinse. Then I mix 1 Tablespoon of bleach with 1 gallon of water, rinse the tray with this mixture and air dry. It’s now ready for my homemade potting soil mixture.
How To Start Seeds
Many methods and procedure exist for starting seedlings: jiffy pots, jiffy pellets, trays, trays with domes, cell plug trays, pots that fit in trays, trays with capillary watering mats and the list goes on. For a first time gardener the choices are overwhelming. Which system is best?
When making a decision, bear in mind what seeds need to germinate: moisture and heat. Light is generally not an important factor until a seed germinates. Then light becomes important. To meet a germinating seeds requirements here’s what I do.
I fill my sanitized plant tray with my sterile soil mixture and plant my seeds. To plant most seeds I make a shallow furrow with my finger or marker stick , about ¼ inch deep. After sprinkling my seeds in my furrow I cover them with soil and gently pat down the soil so the seed is in good contact with the mix. However some seeds are so fine and tiny they are best planted by merely sprinkling them over the surface and patting them in. Celery is an example of a vegetable that benefits from this technique. I plant many herb seeds this way too.
Next I mist the soil with a squirt bottle filled with water. I’ve also used an empty spice bottle filled with water. The plastic shaker top is a perfect way to mimic a gentle “rain” that won’t wash out newly planted seeds. Then I place a piece of plastic wrap loosely over the top of the tray to keep in moisture. (This is the purpose of domes that are sold with plant trays.) In lieu of a piece of plastic wrap, I sometimes put the plant tray inside a big plastic bag. Then I put the planted seed tray in the warmest place I have, behind the woodstove or on top of the fridge and wait for the seeds to pop. If necessary I mist or sprinkle the soil with my water filled shaker bottle. I also uncover the tray enough each day to allow in some “fresh” air.
Heating mats are sold that are effectively heating pads for plant trays. Placing a tray on top of the heat mats provides bottom heat that helps seeds to germinate. Being in an off- grid house with wood heat, I have many warm spots around the stove and water heater which work well. As a teenager, I never used a heating mat either to help germinate my vegetable seeds. I remember we had a hot water heater that was the size and shape of a washing machine and dad used to put the planted seed tray on top of the water heater since the top was nice and warm. That did help with seed germination.
Once the seeds germinate I move the tray to a sunny, preferably south facing window sill. Plant grow lights are useful once seeds have germinated. However, I rely on natural light from sunny window sills which works fine. As long as I rotate the plant trays and pots every day or so, the seedlings get an even supply of light and don’t get leggy or bend toward the sunlight coming in the window.
Because I use a single flat to start most of my vegetable seeds, I must use markers to label each item. For example, I grow several kinds of tomatoes as well as peppers. Seedlings tend to look alike so unless I label them it would be difficult to identify which is which. Markers are sold by seed catalogs for this purpose. Wooden popsicle sticks also work as do plastic strips cut from an empty bleach bottle that has been thoroughly rinsed out. Be sure to use a permanent marker to label your sticks otherwise the ink could be obliterated by repeated waterings. If you grow the same varieties each year, the marker sticks can be reused repeatedly.
Once the seedlings get their second set of true leaves, I transplant each seedling to individual pots, selecting the best of the bunch. Depending on how their growth progresses, I keep transplanting them into larger pots until I can plant them outdoors. Often times I have tomatoes and pepper plants growing in the bottom half of a gallon milk jug come spring.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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