Seed Starting!! The organic remedy for cabin fever

After the polar vortex keeping our temperatures below freezing for months on end, and over 6 feet of snow coating our region in the worst winter in my adult life, our family was in serious need of some whisper of spring.  Some hint that warmer days were coming.  In late February, there were still no signs of it, so we decided to force things along a little and do some seed starting!  Being 8-10 weeks out from our scheduled last frost date, the timing for seed starting was a week or two early but we needed a boost.  Here is how we did it.

What we used:

  • Seeds – we order ours from Terroir Seeds at www.underwoodgardens.com.  They offer a really wide variety of heritage heirloom varieties, and have a great discount membership where $30 will get you 20% off of your order, which definitely makes the money back if you are making large orders…not hard to do with the selection that they have.  We started a range of brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, pak choi, and kale) as well as some herbs (basil, chamomile, fireweed, feverfew, sorrel) and a couple of hardy fruit plants (ground cherry and strawberries)
  • Some seed flats – we used to use the 100 pan trays, but found it too cumbersome to handle each seedling individually, so we switched to 3″x5″ flats.  The kinds with lids are great t form a mini-greenhouse effect when sprouting seeds initially.
  • Fertilized soil – we use a mix of regular potting soil (for first 3-4″ of soil) and a little bit of organic seed starting mix (made of shredded coconut hulls and some other organic matter
  • Popsicle sticks and a pen – for labeling flats with the seed type
  • Watering can with water
Seed starting supplies, all ready to go

Seed starting supplies, all ready to go

Step 1: Prep the flats

Line flats with ~3″ of potting soil.  Press firmly to pack the soil down.  Add a 0.5″ layer of seed starting mix, leaving it fairly loose.  Soak flats with water until bottom tray shows some signs of water permeating.  Make some small holes to plant the seeds in, ~1-2″ apart.  For our 3″x5″ flats, we made six holes in a 2×3 arrangement.

Prepped seed flats

Prepped seed flats

Step 2: Plant the seeds

Following instructions on seed packets, plant seeds in the prepared holes in the soil at the appropriate depth.  Cover with soil and press lightly, as necessary.  Write the name of the seed type on the top half of a popsicle stick, and stick it into the soil so that you can remember what you planted.  Once you are done with a flat, cover it with the lid (if available), or use some plastic wrap, keeping it off of soil surface with the popsicle sticks that you used for labels.

Little gardeners in training

Little gardeners in training

Step 3: Put the flats in a warm, well-lit spot

South facing windows are perfect for this, but that presents a challenge in our house, as most of our good sunny windows are in high kid-traffic areas making it prone to accidents (which we experienced first hand last year when the kids toppled the whole shelving system…argh).  So, our solution was to place a shelving unit in a small unused bedroom in our basement with some grow lights (on a timer).  We have baseboard heat in our basement rooms, so it was convenient to keep one room nice and warm for the little sprouts.

The Rack

The Rack

Step 4: Manage early seedlings

Seeds will start to sprout in a couple of days to a couple of weeks.  When you first start to see the seeds sprout, remove the lid or plastic wrap, and if you are using grow lights, adjust their height to as close as the plant leaves as you can.  This will help to minimize them “getting leggy” or shooting up too quickly to get to the light, leaving them with weak, droopy stems that will not hold up when you eventually plant them.  I did a pretty poor job of this for some of our plants and they will probably be unusable.  Once most of the seeds are sprouted, thin them out to only the strongest seedling from each hole that you planted in.  I look for good color, broad leaves, and stout/stocky stems.  If the plant is something that you can eat the stems from, the thinned sprouts make a great snack or addition to a salad/sandwich!

A nice sprout snack...good addition to our salad for lunch

A nice sprout snack…good addition to our salad for lunch

Step 5: Maintain seedlings until ready to plant

After thinning, maintenance on the seedlings will go way down.  Just water them every couple of days, and adjust the height of the lights to the height of the plants, and you will be well on your way to some happy seedlings.  After 6-8 weeks, the seedlings would be ready to plant.  Since mine will be a little early, we may move them out to the greenhouse after the nights warm up a little so that we can start our next round of warm weather plants.

Seedlings after ~4 weeks of growth

Seedlings after ~4 weeks of growth

Seed starting was a great way to break our winter blues, and once you get good at it, can be a cheap alternative to buying started plants from your local nursery.  Full disclosure, my first two years of seed starting were total failures (literally, nothing made it all of the way to the garden), so prepare yourself for a little failure if this is your first time…its totally OK, and part of the process.  If you are in the northeast US, right now is not a bad time to start some of your own seeds for mid-late spring planting, like tomatoes, peppers, etc…it might be just the thing you need to get your mind on sunnier days.