This glorious January day is not helping. I am itching to get my hands in the dirt. Honestly, I would plant a few rows just to experience the feeling, knowing they would likely not amount to anything. That is how ready I am for spring planting. The good thing is I don’t have to wait too long. The season of seed starting is quickly approaching. Here are seven tips to get you started.
1. Know when to start– May 15 is generally the last day of frost for us here in Northern Colorado. Not that it can’t change mind you. But it is the date I look at for determining when to start what. Knowing how many weeks to start seeds before outdoor planting is critical. If you start too early, you will have bigger and possibly stronger plants (or the opposite), but you may also increase your workload by needing to manage its growth/size/blooming. You want many of these things to happen outside, with the bees and the sun in a permanent location. You also want to capitalize on the plants built in growth plan. If it starts turning its gears toward production too early. The plant will be shocked and need to change gears back to growth when planted in its garden bed. Timing is everything. Another thing to keep in mind is the age of your seeds. Some seeds will last several years under the appropriate storage conditions. Others have a very short shelf life and will be disappointing when you are trying to germinate them and get nothing.
2. Get the right starter tools– Decide what you want to start your plants in. Seed trays? Degradable pots? Plastic yogurt containers? Knowing in advance if your seeds will need to be transplanted from a seed tray to bigger individual pots will help you prepare for that next step. Get the right soil, one for seed starting. I always mix in a sprinkle of worm castings for a nutrient boost on the heavy feeders like tomatoes, but most starter soil should be all you need. Seeds need a certain soil temperature to germinate. Typically 65º-75º. Do you have heat mats? They also will need a certain amount of light per day once germinated. 14-16 hours per day. Do you have a good south facing window? Do you have grow lamps? (**Always use caution and good sense when using heat and light sources that become hot. Heat pads and lights can be fire hazards.)
3. Watch your water use– Seedlings need proper air flow and drainage. Soil should be moist but not drenched to prevent fungal diseases, damping off and rotting. Air circulation is good to keep dampness in check and to prevent many seedling issues that can come up. Covering your trays with plastic pre-germination will keep the moisture level consistent, but should be removed once the seeds germinate. Keep an eye on the soil moisture even when covered to determine if more moisture is needed or if the soil needs a little drying out. Overhead watering can disturb seeds and seedlings in the beginning. Spritzing water or watering from below by placing the tray in a larger container with an inch or two of warm water will minimize any disturbances to delicate seeds/seedlings.
4. Strengthen your plants– If you are using natural light be sure to turn your plants regularly so they grow true and strong, not bending toward the light. Run your hands gently over the top, as if a breeze were stirring the seedlings, to encourage strong stem development. A small fan will also assist, however, make sure by using your fan you are not drying out the soil too much. If your plants are leggy, it is likely too little light and is difficult to correct. Using grow lights for starting seeds will help to provide enough light and manage the intensity. Keep an eye on leaf color, stem width and other markers for healthy plants.
5. Know when to take the next step– Do your seedlings need to be thinned? Pick the strongest one. Not necessarily the tallest, but the strongest. Do you need to pot up? Some seedlings can be cast in an open tray. This tray may not be sufficient for the entire time pre outdoor planting. Know when you need to repot and have your tools available. Are your plants hungry? Know what and when to feed them to keep them growing strong. Once your starts have their true leaves they will get hungry. Keep close to your gardening books or the internet to trouble shoot any problems that are identified.
6. Acclimate your plants to the outdoors– I admit it. If I am going to screw up my seedlings, this is the time. Plants started indoors are spoiled. The growing conditions are perfect and consistent. Well, that is not the outdoors. Especially here in Northern Colorado. The wind can be intense, as is the sun. The temperatures can fluctuate greatly in a day, especially once the sun goes down. So take care to harden your plants of right. Start slow, with a couple morning hours in the shade of the porch or a tree. If you are starting plants in a windowsill, maybe you open the window for a couple hours in the mornings. Each day increase their time outdoors, still somewhat protected, but expose them to sunlight and the elements in increments. Within a week they should be able to stay outside.
7. Planting tips– Know what needs your plants have before you are ready to put them in the dirt. Some plants need loamy soil, some sandy, some need particular nutrients. By knowing this ahead of time it will assist with the transition into the great outdoors. Maybe a row cover will be necessary for the first couple days or weeks. Or a boost of food for the plants. It’s hard to start plants, care for them and mind them for so long, only to have them shrivel up because the bed or irrigation wasn’t planned out. For instance, I always dig a double or triple sized hole for my tomato plants. I mix half the soil from the hole with aged compost or aged manure (nothing “hot”), then plant my starts in the holes. This gives a heavy feeder like tomatoes a great start and access to nutrients throughout the majority of the growing season. The plants tend to grow large and strong and I have a plethora of tomatoes for the season.
I hope these tips are helpful. Good luck with your preparations!