Starting Seeds: Some Dos and Don’ts — Mostly Don’ts

Starting Seeds

This is one of those posts where I tell you about a dumb thing I did so that you don’t have to do the same dumb thing yourself. I know that some of you who stop by this blog are honest-to-goodness farmers, or Master Gardeners, or just a whole lot more experienced in the garden than I am — so you probably won’t need to hear this, unless it’s just to tsk tsk me a little bit. (And I know you’ll be nice.) But if you’re a poke-around-outside-and-learn-from-your-mistakes kind of gardener like I am, my goofs might help you.

Generally, I have had great success starting plants from seed. When I began a few years ago, I read up on what I was supposed to do and tried to follow good seed-starting practices and — Bingo! — healthy, productive plants. These were my first-ever seedlings . . .


So last week, one of the things that I found most soothing while working on this new version of H2H was taking some time to start my seeds. Usually I do this in February, but I took a tip from Caroline — who is in fact a farmer here in Northern California — and got an early start. For my small garden (mostly in containers), I started tomatoes, peppers, and a few experiments — ground cherries, hardy kiwi, Chinese Lanterns.

I start seeds in the room off my kitchen, in which two of the walls are made of glass and not much else. Here is my tiny setup . . .

Basic Seed Starting Method

Because I was tired and distracted, however, I made two critical mistakes: First, I didn’t choose a sterile, fine potting mix, opting instead for what had been sitting in an open bag in the basement. Second, I didn’t properly wash my recycled cell-pack containers. This lazy behavior, coupled with too much moisture under the plastic dome, led to the sprouting of white fungus on the surface of the soil.

Then I made the problem worse by using wooden popsicle sticks for labels . . .

Popsicle Stick Seedling Labels

The sticks are cute, but they are also moisture magnets. They begin to rot almost immediately provide a wonderful host for the white fungus. See? (That orange-red stuff isn’t fungus. It’s cinnamon. More about that just below.)

White Fungus or Mold on Soil Surface

This was my first fungus attack, and I was not at all happy about it. Taking a little extra time to do the right thing in the beginning would have saved me acres of time in the long run — the time I’m now spending monitoring and caring for my sprouts to ensure their survival. If fungus appears on the soil and you don’t treat it right away, it puts your seedlings at eventual risk of death from “damping off.” (I really like this article at You Grow Girl about what damping off is and how to prevent it.) Here’s how I’ve addressed the problem so far:

  1. I pulled out the stupid popsicle sticks and replaced them with plastic labels made from cut up yogurt containers.
  2. I sprinkled the top of the soil with cinnamon (yes, cinnamon!) as described at You Grow Girl and in many other places. It has anti-fungal properties.
  3. I used tweezers to pick off pieces of soil that seemed to be harboring a lot of the fungus and very gently disturbed what soil I could (without upseting the seeds) to aerate things.
  4. I am circulating the air as much as I can by removing the plastic dome for a few hours each day, opening the vents in the dome while it’s in place, and propping open one end of it by about an inch or so. (If the fungus is persistent, I read that you can also use a gentle airstream from a fan, but I haven’t had to go there.)

The good news is that the fungus seems to be gone, but I’m still carefully watching the tray. I would hate to have to chuck everything  and start over, especially now that my seeds have begun to sprout, though I’m grateful that I started early enough — and saved enough seeds — that I can do so if I must.

Look at this tiny tomatillo sprout. (It was the first seedling to emerge.) I will try to take good care of it.

Tomatillo Seedling

The title of this post promises some seed starting tips, too. Here are some favorites for a small-scale setup like mine:

  1. Save nursery cell-packs and yogurt containers (or other plastic cups like the red ones above) for starting seeds and eventually planting them up. (Just remember to wash those containers well!) I set the cell-packs into a sturdy tray for easier watering.
  2. Use a fine, sterile potting  mix. (Avoid peat. It works great, but it’s not a sustainable resource. The large-scale removal of peat has done all kinds of environmental damage.)
  3. If the seed packet calls for planting the seeds at any depth (rather than surface sowing), I like to use a chopstick for making indentations in the soil.
  4. Label the containers as you go. I’m easily distracted, so it helps me to label one set of planted containers before I even open the next seed packet.
  5. Use a seedling heat mat under your tray. You can get them at hardware stores and they aren’t expensive. My pepper seeds won’t sprout without one.
  6. As soon as your seeds sprout, provide them with strong overhead light. I am using a single 32W (125W incandescent equivalent) CFL. I’m sure I could be doing more here — and the light should be closer to the seedlings — but there’s a lot of good light in the room, too, and this has worked for me. If my tomatoes and peppers get a bit spindly (as they will do with insufficient light), I plant them down to the first set of true leaves when I repot them.
  7. Don’t water from the top! I use a mist bottle to keep the soil surface moist and water the tray from the bottom as necessary. (I put about an inch of water into the bottom of the tray immediately after planting and let the cell-packs soak it up.)
  8. If you use a plastic dome (you can find trays with domes at most hardware stores), ventilate it properly to make sure things don’t get too humid in there. Yep, we know all about that now.

Do you have a favorite seed-starting tip or something helpful you’ve learned from an experience good or bad? If so, will you share?

Supplies for Starting Seeds

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