A lot is made of seed starting. I’m going to simplify the process for you: start some seeds! For the most part, nature has perfected the seed and all you need to do is put some semblance of the right elements together to encourage relatively good performance. Which is not to discredit the more systematic tried and true seed starting methods, which I will describe below. But rather, to encourage gardening. Imperfect, messy, good gardening.
I was surprised to learn that seeds actually germinate more consistently in a relatively low light environment. Ideal germinating conditions for your little bundles include low light and consistent warmth. I like the top of my refrigerator – where the the fridge’s heat is being put to good use and where the seeds are safe from curious and impatient child fingers.
If you want to be a true planting rock star, you may consider soaking seeds for 8 hours prior to planting. You may also consider germinating seeds in damp paper towel, then transferring to seed starting dirt once germination has occurred. These are, in my humble opinion, gardening techniques for the above and beyond gardener. I only engage in such thorough behavior when planting older seeds that I fear may have a low germination ratio (they might not grow well).
I do however, use soil-less seed starter mix until I run out. At which point I plan to purchase more, but never do, and resort to regular old garden dirt (which, in my case, is really nice dirt), with almost as good results. I’ll return to this point shortly.
First, Seed Starting 101:
1. Soak Seeds. Fairly self-explanatory. Soak seeds. Eight hours is the oft quoted number. Skip if desired.
2. Germinate seeds. Germinate either in paper towel or in seed starter mix.
(a) Germinating in paper towel adds an extra step, but is only mildly more complicated. Soak paper towel. Place seeds (soaked seeds if you are a real keener) between the two sheets of wet paper towel on a flat surface. Keep paper towel consistently warm and damp until seeds germinate. Transfer seeds to individual pots. This is sort of fun with kids as they can really see the germinated seeds.
(b) Alternately, you can germinate seeds directly in plugs using seed starter mix. Mix should be warm and wet. As with the paper towel method, seeds need consistent warmth and water to perform their magic. I like to use egg cartons as plugs. They are about the right size, completely recycled (thus free and environmentally friendly) and can be popped right into the garden when the plant is ready for transfer.
3. Transplant up and harden off. Also simpler than generally conveyed – afterall, plants want to grow. They work with you to thrive. But that’s a post for another day…
Having now advocated seed starter mix, and admitted to skipping it later in the season with little ill effect, here’s the lowdown and the why it’s worth your while.
Seed starter mix is relatively inexpensive and offers a couple of advantages to the dirt from your garden, the most obvious and most important of which, is that it is disease and pest free. This ensures a healthy start for your plants. These mixes are generally made predominantly of sphagnum peat moss, which is well draining but water retentive. They are also mildly acidic, with a PH of around 5.8 – great for starting seeds. Some starter mixes have additional ingredients such as vermiculite, perlite or bark to increase drainage and water retention; limestone or gypsum to adjust Ph; wetting agents to increase the water retention; or fertilizers. I’ve honestly not noticed a difference in result from brand to brand, but caution against wetting agents because they are by definition non-organic and against fertilizers, which are not required for seed germination.
My favorite seed starting mix is the one that is available in bulk tablets from the gardening store in or neighbourhood. The pellets mix 1 pellet to 1/2 cup of warm water and require about five minutes to transform from rock solid to mud. They are as tidy as anything in the garden can be, and because they are sold in bulk, are more environmentally friendly than their ultra packaged relatives.
For reference, three tablets (at 25 cents a piece) provides plenty of “dirt” for a dozen egg carton plugs, pictured above.
Seed starting is simple enough that even the most novice gardener can manage. It’s also much much cheaper than purchasing plants. And better for the earth. You need a consistently warm place (top of fridge) for germination. And a sunny spot for your little plants to thrive after germination. You need to water often. And worry occasionally.
Stop fussing, start planting!