By Courtney Belew
Oh, the joys of gardening. One can find a sense of pride in starting plants from seeds, and while it may seem like an intimidating endeavor, it’s much simpler than one might imagine – and its benefits are many.
Aside from the satisfaction of being a part of the “grow your own” movement, seed starting is pragmatic. A single bag of seeds can last several seasons, is vastly cheaper than buying transplants, yields more plants and, with the proper planning, can produce more fruits and a continuous yield throughout the season. And while it’s incredibly convenient and easy to spend the extra money on seedlings at a local gardening center, the variety is oftentimes limited to the uninspired and commonplace produce found on the shelves at the local grocer.
Growing a plant to yield takes a lot of care and resources, so why bother with anything less than the best? Take a chance on those heirloom zebra striped tomatoes or container cucumbers, explore new flavors and unearth a new passion for plants when starting seeds from home. For anyone interested in gardening, it’s not a chore – it’s a hobby to be enjoyed. Here are some tips on how to easily start seeds at home.
What do you need?
• Containers made from paper waste fibers like peat pots are ideal as they provide excellent drainage and air movement. A favorite are CowPots, which are made from repurposed manure by a family-owned farm in Connecticut.
• Seed starting mix.
• Seeds. If you’re planning on growing organic varieties, be sure to also purchase organic seed starting mix.
• A sunny window and place to “harden off,” aka a place to condition the plants from seedling to in-ground so as not to shock them. You can’t go from cozy indoor temperatures to the cold outside, so placing them in a covered porch or moving them outdoors for a few hours each day is a great way to prep them.
• Spray bottle. This is optional, but very useful.
Seed starting mix versus other potting soil
This nutrient-rich mix is specially formulated to give seedlings everything they need to successfully sprout. Natural additives include vermiculite and perlite, which aerate the soil, maintain moisture where it’s most needed and improve drainage.
Do you need to add fertilizer?
The seed starting mix should contain all the nutrients your plants need, but for those who want to add additional nutrients, we recommend worm castings, which is essentially worm excrement. You can add about one tablespoon for every eight ounces of seed starting mix to ensure success. This product is readily available at garden centers, and your local Ace Hardware carries a locally made product from Organic Mechanics.
If the seedlings are going in a container versus in-ground, we also recommend using a natural root stimulator when transplanting from the seed starting pots to a larger container. A favorite product is Natural Alternative’s Protilizer, a chemical free root stimulator made locally in Frederick, Maryland. At only $2.99, the small packet is an inexpensive investment to ensure success and provides enough food for several containers. Using this product in conjunction with a specially formulated potting mix ensures the seedlings have a strong foundation for successful and strong root growth. The stronger and more numerous the roots, the more water your plant will be able to absorb, which in turn means the biggest leaves and growth.
How do you start seeds?
It generally takes two to eight weeks to germinate seeds, depending on the seed variety. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the last frost date for the Alexandria region was March 30. Please reference this date when looking at seed starting directions on seed packets, as it may influence whether your seeds are started indoors or sowed directly in the ground. While this is a great guideline for when to start your seeds, it’s not law. Deviation by one or two weeks from the suggested timeline can still produce a happy, healthy plant, but may require extra care in the first few weeks after transplanting to ensure proper watering needs are met.
Here is a step-by-step guide for how to start your seeds.
Step 1: Fill the container and leave 3/4 inch from the top with the mixture to be used. Mist to add moisture.
Step 2: Level and gently firm the planting medium. Do not push too hard, or else you will stunt aeration and growth.
Step 3: Make a small hole in the top, about twice as deep as the seed’s diameter, except if you are planting very fine/ small seeds.
Step 4: Top the seed mix with vermiculite. This helps reduce moisture on top of the seeds.
Step 5: Mist the seeds. It’s important not to overwater. They should have moisture but not be soaked.
Step 6: Lightly cover the seedlings with plastic film, creating a greenhouse. Spray the plastic or mist the soil if it starts to dry.
Step 7: Monitor your plants and keep them in a bright, but not drafty, area in your home. When they start to sprout and are about 2 inches high and/or have their first “true leaves,” or the second set of leaves, you can transplant them into a new container or in ground. For the first few days make sure to water regularly – but not overwater as you don’t want to encourage mold growth – and monitor your plants. Once the roots are established, they can be watered and cared for as any other in-ground or container plant.
How do you care for seedlings?
• Place the seeds in a warm location for germination, aka first growth, that is about 65 to 75° Fahrenheit.
• Move them to a bright light, such as a south facing window, rotate them daily and remove the plastic once sprouts come up.
• Humidity is your friend. Humidifiers are helpful. Allow drying between watering, and don’t let seedlings wilt.
• Cut the weaker seedlings at their base to avoid overcrowding.
• “Harden off” two weeks before planting by placing flats outside periodically during good weather days, not windy days.
• Transplant as soon as the seedlings have “true leaves.” You may need to transplant them into a smaller pot before planting in ground or in containers.
The writer is the director of marketing and business development at A Few Cool Hardware Stores, a group of 13 employee-owned Ace Hardware stores in the DMV, which includes Old Town Ace at 809 S. Washington St.