A Few Seed Starting Tips

I’ve just turned the seed-starting shelf lights on for the first time this season. I would have turned them on yesterday, but with the lack of outlets in my basement, it would have necessitated me emptying out the chest freezer into a ragged assortment of cold places, possibly including a couple coolers packed in the melting snow outside. I’ll get that thing cleaned out in a few weeks, after we make more of a dent in that 1/4 grass-fed steer.

So yesterday afternoon, my partner gamely wired a new outlet for me in the basement. The leeks are really coming now–almost every six-pack has two or three or more little green loops popping above the soil surface (it takes them a few days to break out of their hard seed coat entirely, so they come up as a little green loop until they can free their leaf-tip from the seed casing).

I wanted to post a couple tips on seed-starting here based on what I think are some fairly common problems.

First–make sure you are sowing at the right time. Now would not be an ideal time to start tomato plants in this area, unless you like vast colonies of spindly tomatoes flopping around every surface of your house. I will not start tomatoes until fairly late in March to avoid this problem.

Check your seed packs for appropriate time (6-8 weeks vs. 10-12 weeks before the frost-free date, for example), and then check online, or with local gardeners, or in your Old Farmers Almanac for your local “frost-free” date to get a good idea for when to start seed in your area.

When you’ve sowed seeds in seedling medium, or whatever you’re using, keep them moist, but not soggy. You can cover the tops of your flats/pots/egg cartons with plastic wrap or some other moisture-preserving barrier if you want (I don’t), but make sure to check every day for seedling emergence, and remove the cover as soon as they emerge. Failure to do so can encourage growth of mold and disease, such as (the horror!) damping off.

You also might want to consider washing/sterilizing your pots if they’ve been used before–especially if you’ve had this problem before. If you do encounter flopping-over, rotting-at-the-base seedlings–remove them immediately, and try to get some better airflow for your plants–a little fan on low could help. Reduce watering if you’ve been soaking them heavily.

If you’re going to start seedlings indoors, I suggest full-spectrum fluorescent lights, though for many years I did get by with a sunny window. The problem with the sunny window is that the light tends not to be strong enough, and the seedlings grow lanky and spindly.

If you use lights, make sure either your light fixture or your shelf is adjustable. You want your light fixture just above the growing tip of your plants (and make sure you’re using a light fixture that doesn’t get too hot!). This keeps the plants from trying too hard to get to that light and becoming spindly and weak-stemmed. Also, if you use lights, start turning the lights on right when you see the seedlings start to break through the soil surface.

Most sources say to give the seedlings a 12-hour “day” if you’re using light fixtures. I probably should use a timer, but I don’t. I turn on the lights when I get up in the morning, and I turn them off after dinner, or a little later.

I’ll be posting more tips as the weeks progress. Happy planting!


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Joe Leach on November 12, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Hi..I just saw your site and have a few questions. I brought some hybrid big boy seeds with me to Thailand this trip and have just started them. They popped in four days and are an inch and a half to two inches today at one week old. They have some water soluble nutrient here, 21-21-21, should I start feeding them a little now diluted , full strength, or not at all. I have been putting them outside daily under a screen to difuse the effects of the mid day sun. I’m trying not to waer to much but I have to sprinkle several times a day. Any advice would be much appreciated as I am really anxious to freak the locals out with this large tomato if it works. They only have a very small variety here.
    Thank you for your advice….Joe

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on November 12, 2008 at 10:56 pm


    I am not sure what that water soluble nutrient is, but I would recommend using only a very diluted amount of it if you use it on such young plants. It also really depends on what you have them planted in–many “potting soils” have fertilizer in them–in that case you probably wouldn’t want to overdo it by adding more in the watering.

    Whatever you do, try to avoid watering the leaves themselves if you are sprinkling–especially in hot, humid climates that can lead to fungal diseases. I would recommend more deep watering and then allowing the surface to dry out a bit–I’m confused about why you’d have to water several times a day unless they are in a very little amount of soil. If they’re crowded and sucking the water down fast–put them in bigger pots.

    While you want to screen them a little from severe sun in their tender youth–don’t screen them too much or they may become spindly.

    Good luck!

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