By Shannon McCabe, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/rareseeds.com
Photographs courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Germinating seeds is the very first step to gardening. Depending on your goals and your budget, seed starting can be an elaborate production or a low-cost endeavor. As gardening season approaches, it is wise to assess your budget and make a checklist of your essential seed starting equipment.
While there are some money "hacks" that can reduce seed starting costs, a few items are worth the investment in order to improve your chances of uniform germination and healthy plants.
You can choose a budget method or a more pricey (but still reasonably priced) new seed tray and pot setup for seed starting. Be sure to think about what crops you will be starting and assess whether or not these seeds will need extra care and attention. More needy crops such as peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and some perennials — especially those that require a seed heating mat — should be grown in a seed tray with good drainage holes and appropriately sized cells. For easy-to-germinate crops such as lettuce and kale and some flowers, you can use budget seed trays freely as these varieties will not fuss about their container or conditions.
Seed trays on a budget: This is one category where you can safely choose a budget method and still expect quite a high rate of success. You can try anything from homemade folded newspaper pots to egg cartons, eggshells and recycled plastic containers such as yogurt cups. Just remember that all seed trays, no matter the material, need to be clean to avoid pathogens and disease. If you reuse old pots or other used plastics, be sure they are squeaky clean.
Containers should be appropriately sized to your seeds and plants (eggshell halves only hold a few teaspoons of dirt and should only be used for small seedlings.) Also provide drainage holes to any non-porous plant pots/trays.
Seed trays for reliability: If you want solid, reliable choices for seed starting, be sure to purchase new seed trays or reuse very lightly used trays. Always sanitize used trays and pots with bleach.
Plastic seed starting trays are named for the number of individual cells in a tray. A 72-cell tray is an excellent choice for seed starting. After the small seedlings take root and become strong, you can "uppot" the seedlings to 6-packs, 4-packs (the way seedlings are sold at garden centers) or pots that are 1.5 to 4 inches across.
Cowpots, made from composted cow manure, are another great choice for seed starting. Or you can invest in a soil block maker and eliminate the need for pots entirely! It takes a bit of trial and error to figure out proper soil moisture with the block maker, but once you get the hang of it, you'll find the reduced use of plastic a huge bonus!
Seed Starting Soil
Never skimp on soil. Finding a quality seed-starting medium is very important for reliable germination and healthy plants. Many new gardeners make the mistake of digging up some garden soil to fill seedling trays. Seed starting soil needs to be sterile, very lightweight, fine and well drained, and most garden soil is not. If there is one thing to spend money, time or effort on, it's soil. Fortunately, there are a few hacks for those determined to save a buck!
Seed starting soil on a budget: Instead of buying a pre-made bag of seed starter, you can mix your own. Ingredients should be sterile and fresh. A popular recipe is one part coconut fiber (an eco-friendly alternative to peat moss) to one part perlite (a volcanic material that aids in aeration, and makes the mix drain water better). Mix thoroughly and fill trays. Alternatively, you can make a one part coconut fiber, one part perlite, and one part vermiculite mix to make things even finer and better draining.
Another option is to make your own high-quality compost or worm compost, but you will want it to be very well managed to ensure that there are no lingering pathogens. You will also need to screen your compost to ensure that it is fine enough. For this mix, use one part compost to one part perlite.
Seed starting soil for reliability: Well-balanced, well-drained seed starting mixes are available for purchase. Try one that is peat free and boasts micronutrients.
Some seeds, especially those in the tomato family, require a very warm soil in order to germinate. Be careful when using any electrical heat sources, as your seed trays will be getting wet. Do not try to cut corners by using things like electric blankets — these can cause fires!
Bottom heat on a budget: Many gardeners will place seed trays on a warm surface such as the top of a refrigerator; but please always keep safety in mind.
Bottom heat for reliability: Horticultural heat mats are an excellent, fairly low cost way to ensure even germination. Super hot peppers really require a heat mat for good germination. Be sure to buy a mat that includes a soil thermometer in order to keep the mat set to an appropriate temperature.
The best, most economical option is always to germinate seeds in the natural light of a warm, non-drafty, south-facing window, or better yet a sunroom or greenhouse. However, many gardeners do not have access to this, so supplemental lights may be the answer. Try fluorescent shop lights or LED light strips, and don't forget to put them on a timer or manually turn them on and off. Do not run supplemental lighting for more than 16 hours a day.
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