A note before we begin:
This is an old posting from another time, another year, another time of the year, and as such may read a bit awkwardly at times. It was meant for Spring Growth; I have changed the word 'Spring' to 'Fall', or perhaps 'Autumn'. Also, It was written over two years ago, and my seed growing knowledge has increased many folds since that time, what with running a nursery and all. Still there is plenty much here for your ever-hungry garden brain to consume. Without further ado,
It is time to make babies. Though we may be back in the depths of a southern sub-tropical oven days from now, at this moment Autumn is trying hard to creep into the atmosphere. Regardless of sentiments or feelings related to weather or completely unrelated to anything I’ve addressed thus far (which is more or less nothing), there are some seeds which ought to get sown pretty much right now.
It’s important to understand that even though it’s a relatively simple process, most people fail pretty miserably the first time they try to grow their own plants from seed indoors. There are hundreds of how to’s on the internet and in books. You can buy starter kits with instructions and most of the fixings needed to get some seeds started for yourself. All of those instructions everywhere will tell you the exact same thing and you need to listen to them if you want anything to work. I have only one thing to add to those instructions: listen to the instructions.
Actually I have a lot of things to add. Even though you can find instructions anywhere you like, I’ll go ahead and do it all over again right here, and tell you why you’re going to screw up along the way. This is going to be very non-linear and probably entirely impractical, but maybe somebody will get something out of it and some snippet of it will end up in an e-how article a few years down the road.
You will need seeds. We will talk about that later, the whole context of this rant being there are certain seeds you should be starting indoors right now, it belongs in a later place.
You will need little cell packs to put your seeds in and a reservoir tray to put those little cell packs in. You can find something like this just about anywhere. Don’t get sold on any kitschy make your own vegetables! tiny little incubator. You want one (or three or four or five, depending on how much you plan to grow) tray that says it can grow at least 32 starts for you, and you want it to come with a cheap plastic cover. If there’s anything else involved you don’t need it, and if it can’t grow at least 32 plants you don’t want it. Also, the reservoir is essential. If that thing drains, if it has holes in the bottom of it, you don’t want it. It is to be a reservoir: a natural or artificial place where water is collected and stored for use . That plastic cover is helpful but not necessary.
You need shop lights. You absolutely need shop lights. If you do not buy shop lights your babies will die. It is the mistake that everybody makes. You can not shine a light bulb over your plants, and you can’t stick them by the window. They will burn if you put the light bulb too close and they will get leggy if it’s too far away, and there’s no way you are going to angle that thing in a manner that effectively and equally bathes your baby seedlings in life giving light. With the window, your seedlings just aren’t going to get enough light. You will get your seedlings, but they’ll be a foot long when they should be three inches long and then they will die of Gigantism.
There is plenty of advice out there recommending specific light wave spectrum and wattage for optimal plant growth and that’s all totally legit, but a cheap shop light with a low wattage will be fine. You are going to hang that thing about three inches over your tray and once your seedlings germinate, move it up as needed so that at any given time it’s between zero and three inches away from the tops of your plants. This is important. Gigantism kills. Don’t freak out, shop lights are cheap.
The only other material necessity is your growing medium. As long as it’s inert you’re fine. What you’re doing here is protecting your tiny plants from the big bad ecosystem that exists in the dirt. Incubating, as it were. They’ll have plenty of time to develop immunity to various illnesses when they get a little older. No bag of potting soil is going to say ‘inert’ on it, or anything like that. Just buy something that doesn’t have any fertilizer in it and that isn’t made out of bark or manure. It can be peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, or any combination of these things, and maybe some other things. The back of the bag will tell you what is inside. If it doesn’t you shouldn’t buy it for anything, because it’s probably made of car scraps and dinosaur bones, or same similar ingredients.
Now you do a bunch of obvious stuff. Fill the cell packs with your potting soil (it’s not technically soil but it’s okay to call it soil), put your seeds in the cell packs, one in each if you’re feeling lucky, two in each if you’re prepared to slaughter half your young when they reach puberty. Your seed packet ought to tell you how deep to put in the seed, but if it doesn’t it’s alright, just cover the seed with as little soil as possible. Oh, buy a spray bottle. Spray your seeds down.
This is giant mistake number two, the spray bottle. You will want to spray your plants with a spray bottle all the time, and that won’t work. Getting your seedling wet is dangerous business and you probably won’t ever get the soil wet enough to make your plants happy. That’s what reservoirs are for, water. Initially, before germination (the crowning of your baby’s head from the soil), spray that thing with a spray bottle because there are no roots there. Once germination happens, stop. Fill your reservoir with about a half inch of water. The roots will find the water, everything will be fine.
In a perfect world you will let that reservoir dry out and let it stay dry for a day at a time before refilling it, but if you do that you’ll probably forget and leave it dry for a few days and find your plants dead. Keep it wet, it’s safer. Your roots are better off soggy than dry.
That clear plastic thing, if you got one, that’s just to retain moisture in your tray while waiting for your seeds to germinate. Leave it on until your babies pop their heads out, then take it off and forget it ever existed.
That’s almost everything. If you are irresponsible and have a few extra dollars, you’ll buy a timer for your shop lights and set them to be on for 18 hours a day, starting around dawn. This is ideal. If you are responsible but cheap, turn on the lights when you wake up and turn them off when you go to bed. This is not as great, as the plants get less light and you’re probably not responsible enough not to forget to turn the lights on some days and off others. I believe this is considered a form of torture by many nation states, and in America torturing our babies is illegal most of the time. Be a patriot; buy a timer.
Here are other things you should do. When your plants start forming true leaves (a third leaf that looks cooler than the first two that popped out), feed them some low concentrate organic liquid fertilizer or whatever you can get your hands on. Put it in the reservoir and watch the fruit flies devastate your closet. Keep feeding them every couple of weeks or so. If you’re feeling fancy and have the space, it’s a great idea to transplant your seedlings into 4 inch pots when they start getting big, but It’s not necessary as they’ll be in the ground soon enough.
Remember, you’ll probably fail miserably your first time. It’s okay, you only wasted about $40, and if you still care about growing food next Fall, you’ve got some fixings and a slightly better shot at success.
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.