Starting vegetable and flower seeds is a fantastic way to get high-quality plants at home. There are many reasons to start seeds at home; maybe you want to try some new heirloom varieties or a specific cultivar that is resistant to downy mildew.
Local garden centers are pretty restricted when it comes to available varieties, since they typically carry the most common flowers and vegetables. If you’re looking for something different or unique, you’ll likely have to start it from seed.
Starting seeds also ensures that you’re getting the healthiest plants possible. As your seedlings grow, you can remove the less-vigorous plants and toss them. By the time your seedlings are ready to transplant, you’ll be left with the cream of the crop. You can’t tell which plants are the best when it comes to picking them out at a nursery. The large tomato plant that you have your eye on may look large and healthy, but was it the slow-grower of its bunch? There’s no way to tell by looking at it. Vigorous plants produce more, so stop guessing and feel confident in your plants by starting seeds at home.
Have you read up on starting seeds? Do you know what you need to start seeds? The information that you find online may make you think that you need some elaborate set up to start healthy seeds. What do you really need to start seeds?
Supplies Needed to Start Seeds
I’ve seen a ton of articles about starting seeds in recycled containers. I can tell you from experience that this can be more of a headache than anything else. This is especially true when you consider how cheap seed starting containers are and the fact that they can be reused. Don’t try to start your seeds in recycled toilet paper or paper towel tubes.
These tubes can be problematic for two reasons.
They lack a bottom, which means unless you do something to create a bottom, water that you put in the soil is going to leach right out pretty quickly.
Also, the cardboard tube breathes very well. This can dry the soil out around your seed. It can be hard to keep the soil moist enough without having a soggy cardboard tube. Soggy soil can create mold that can kill your seedling. Avoid the issue by sticking with a plastic seed starting tray that has drainage holes.
Were you planning on starting seeds in a southern facing window? Even the brightest window may not produce enough sunlight. Yes, there will likely be enough sunlight for your seeds to germinate, but once they start growing, they will start stretching towards the window.
Seeds that stretch will become weak and top heavy. These weak plants are much more likely to break. Prevent stretching by hanging a grow light over them. Seeds are only going to germinate if the conditions are right.
One of the most common reasons that seeds fail to germinate is that they aren’t in soil that is warm enough. If you’re starting seeds in your home, the soil temperature will generally be warm enough to germinate seeds. If you’re starting seeds in a sunroom or your garage, you’ll want to invest in some heating mats to keep the soil warm and encourage germination.
Once your seeds start to sprout, don’t be tempted to cut the heat off just yet. Let your seedlings get well-established before removing the heating pad.
You’ll also need seed starter mix. Don’t attempt to grow seedlings in potting soil or garden soil. It can be tempting to start with those mixes since that’s what you’ll be transplanting into. Potting soil and garden soil are heavy mixes that will pack when moist. These soil mixes are too dense for seeds to germinate through.
Seed starter mix is light and fluffy, even when it’s full of water. Seed starter creates the perfect growing environment for your seeds and seedlings.
Common Seed Starting Myths
Have you read articles about how to make seeds germinate quicker or seedlings grow faster? If you said yes, then I want you to know that many of these methods don’t actually do anything to speed up the process.
Myth: Scratching Seeds
Seeds with a tough coating like squash or pumpkin, can benefit from having their seed coating scratched. While this will increase the germination rate of these seeds, the difference is only a few hours. Most seeds will sprout easily enough without going through the trouble of scratching the seed coating. It’s also easy to overdo it and damage the seed when you’re trying to scratch the coating.
Skip this step and sow the seeds without scratching.
Myth: Pelletized Seeds are Too Expensive for the Home Gardener
This couldn’t be any more false!
Have you ever tried to hand sow lettuce, carrots or petunias? The seeds are tiny. Some are so small that you can hardly even see them, much less sow one or two seeds at a time.
Pelletized seeds have an outer coating that breaks down once the seed germinates. This outer coating makes it much easier to handle these tiny seeds.
Pelletized seeds are going to cost a little bit more, but we’re talking a few cents more. It’s definitely worth it to buy pelletized seeds.
Myth: Start Seeds on Top of the Fridge
This common myth is something that worked with older refrigerators, which were designed to get warm at the top. This created a nice warm spot for starting seeds.
Most newer refrigerators don’t get warm on the top, so it’s not a suitable place for starting seeds. If you want to start seeds and provide them warm soil, invest in some heating mats designed for starting seeds.
Myth: You Must Wash Pots in Bleach before Starting Seeds
Many online forums recommend washing seed-starting pots in a 10% bleach solution. They claim that this reduces diseases that can be transmitted.
Although this is true, it’s not necessary for home gardeners. If you are growing on a massive scale, say, in a commercial greenhouse, then you may want to take the time to sanitize your seed starting pots.
For the home gardener, the instance of diseases is low anyways and you’ll waste more time than it’s worth washing out pots. Many diseases that affect seedlings are caused by organisms found in the air anyways, so even plants raised in the cleanest of pots can get diseases.
Myth: Refrigerated Seeds Germinate Faster
This myth is based on the idea of stratification. Stratification involves exposing seeds to the cold to kick-start them into germinating. The only way this works is if you soak your seeds and then place them into the fridge, but it won’t improve your germination rates much, if at all.
Skip this step and simply start your seeds straight from the package.
Myth: Soaking Seeds in Water Overnight can Boost Germination Rates
Some seeds have a tough outer coating and can take longer to germinate. You can speed up their germination by a day or two by soaking them in room temperature water overnight before sowing them.
This method does work but it won’t make much of a difference in the time it takes for your plants to get big enough to transplant into the garden.
This is an optional step.
Myth: Sterilized Garden Soil can Prevent Dampening Off
I’m not sure who came up with this idea, but let’s nip it in the bud. There’s no such thing as ‘sterile’ soil. Soil is a natural habitat to thousands of microorganisms. In fact, the soil is home to many microorganisms that are necessary for plant growth and overall health.
Dampening off is usually caused by a fungal infection, which is carried by spores in the air. Even if you go through the ridiculous lengths of trying to sterilize your garden soil, your plants could still end up dampening off because of the spores in the air. Save yourself the trouble over worrying about sterilized garden soil.
When it comes to starting seeds, there are too many ‘hacks’ out there. While some of these hacks may work, they often don’t make enough of a difference to matter. Don’t waste your time trying to hack your seed starting process. Keep it simple.
- Start with a quality seed starting mix and good seeds.
- Don’t try to sterilize your pots or soil mix.
- Provide them with plenty of sunlight (14-16 hours per day) or supplemental light if needed.
- Heating mats can help keep the soil warm, but aren’t always needed.
- Keep the soil moist and the lights on.
Shelby DeVore is the founder of the homesteading blog Farminence. She teaches people how to garden, raise livestock and be more self-sufficient. She currently lives on a farm in West Tennessee with her husband, three kids and too many animals to name.