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 . . .

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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19 comments to Starting Seeds: Some Dos and Don’ts — Mostly Don’ts

  • Kate

    Thanks for the tips! I am starting from seed for the first time this year, and this is a great help.

  • My best tip is on getting more light to your seedlings; I got a shoplight from Home Depot (I found the best wavelength of bulbs to buy at You Grow Girl.com) and I suspend it on chains about 1-2 inches above the leaves of my seedlings. I can raise the light as the seedlings grow. I used to give them 12 hours of light a day, but then read that 18 hours was even better (some people don’t turn off the light at all). I also built a makeshift ‘magnifier’ house all around the seed starting area; I lined large pieces of cardboard with tinfoil, shiny side out, then leaned these on all sides, and the top, over the light, of the seed starting tray. The difference is AMAZING. Fat, thick, lush tomato seedlings such as I’ve never had with our weak, Northeastern winter sun. If nothing else – try the tinfoil trick – it really does wonders.

  • Oh, and I’m coming to visit. You’ll find me out by the pool.

  • Shae

    Kate: Good luck! Take Kaela’s advice, too, on getting the best light setup you can manage. I’m still tinkering with what I can do in the public space of my sunroom. Eventually, I may move things to the basement and get shop lights. But that means cleaning up the basement first. Sigh.

    Kaela: This is what I wanted! Tips from folks who have worked stuff out like you have. It’s a little bit awkward for me because the seeds are practically in the entrance to our house. Shop lights on chains would be frowned upon. (But see my note to Kate for future plans!) Come in July, why don’t you, and we’ll have margaritas by the pool. Just put in your order for a less foggy summer well in advance, will you? Last year our summer was so cold that my peppers pooped out almost entirely.

  • Keeping grow light on for 12-18 hours a day mimics the sun’s light that the plants recieve in the summer. Another thing you can do is put an oscillating fan near them. Not directly next to them but enough to give them a small breeze. This mimics the wind and will help to make the stalks stronger for when you transplant them outside.

  • one year i started my seeds in eggshells, then transferred those to newspaper pots, then into the garden. i use the top of my dryer as a heat mat, since with a family of 5, i use it quite a bit. i also learned not to start too early, as one year i had some pretty large seedlings that needed to go out in the garden, but it wasn’t warm enough yet. i am thinking of trying to use milk jugs as cloches in case i get that problem again.

  • Shae

    Amanda: Yay, I hope these tips keep coming. This is one of the best things about having a blogging community. I’m keeping the grow light on for about 16 hours. I like the tip about the fan.

    Mamafitz: Eggshells! I will look into that, too. I am curious to see what happens here with such an early start. Last year I started on Feb 15 and I ended up with a little forest in my sunny window, waiting to be transplanted. It stayed cold pretty late into May. It seems to be all about learning as we go, doesn’t it?

  • Oh, yes, I forgot; before I got a seedling heat mat, I started seeds on top of the refrigerator. Stays pretty warm up there. And yes – last growing season I started seeds too early (in Feb). Things got leggy and distracted before I could get them outdoors. I will wait ’till March 1st for early seeds, peppers & tomatoes, here in New York.

    Shae – I’ll trade our humidity and crazy heat spells for some fog & margaritas in July; you can trade rains & fog for foliage and crisp, fire-on-the-deck nights in October. :)

  • Jyll

    I can’t get over the awesomeness that is the glass room with the pool view! Fabulous!
    Thanks for the great post. Lots of helpful information for an otherwise black-thumbed gardener like myself!

  • bobbie-sue

    Thanks for the post and for all the comments! I just started some cilantro and chives in eggshells last night. Being up in Toronto, I was pretty sure it was too soon to start tomatoes and pickling cucumbers for the garden, but I figured I could start with herbs, which I’ll keep in containers regardless. Kaela, I’ll aim for early March, since we’re just a bit north of you.

  • Shae

    Jyll: Thanks! I’ve found that all you’ve got to do is keep experimenting til you find what works, and keep at it — and maybe that’s the main thing; seedlings are like having little pets, they need attention every day! I’m glad to report that mine are all doing well, after the bumpy start.

    Bobbie-Sue: I’m glad you stopped by. Have you had luck with cilantro before? I would love to grow it, but the couple of times I’ve tried, it has bolted so fast that I ended up feeling it wasn’t worth it. I’m not sure what I should be doing differently. This year I got a “slow bolting” variety, thinking I might try again. Maybe I’ll follow your lead and save some eggshells!

  • bobbie-sue

    I honestly haven’t had much luck with anything from seed before, but the new house has big sunny south facing windows so I thought I would give it another go. I guess I should clarify: it’s the egg cartons that I’m using, not the shells themselves. Though I have seen that technique. No sprouts yet. Guess it’s time for a warmer location and some added light.

    • Shae

      This made me laugh at myself! Of course the egg cartons make more sense . . . and I have so many of them. I am going to try that this spring. It may be that you need to put some heat underneath. The seedling heat mat made a huge difference for me. I did learn that they don’t need the light until they actually sprout. If you think of it, report back. I love to hear how these things sort out.

      • bobbie-sue

        They sprouted up on Thursday! I moved them onto the fireplace for a little warmth and eased up on the water a bit. Each cell has sprouts! Thanks for all the tips. I can’t wait to start the cucumbers and tomatoes, now that I know what I’m doing :D

  • Hi! Here’s my tip for a generous supply of cheap, fast garden markers…. take old mini blinds and cut the slats up with scissors. You can custom cut what lengths you want very fast by stacking the slats and you can create pointy ends at one end for an easier stick into the dirt. Also the nice big advantage with these mini blinds is writing on them with permanent markers is very easy and clear and doesn’t smudge or run from moisture! Last but not least since you can stack the slats to cut you end up with a quick and abundantly huge stock of marker tags! I am always finding these mini blinds at garage sales for next to nothing in spare coins. Have fun!

    • Shae

      That’s a great idea! My cut up yogurt container markers are working fine, but this sounds even better. Next time I cross paths with a salvageable set of mini blinds, I’ll grab it.

  • Val

    Did they survive? Did the cinnamon do the trick? Though I have tried to do everything right (clean trays, soil-less mix), my dampened mix sprouted white fungus before I even put the seeds in! I am wondering if I should shuck the whole lot and start over.
    I read that chamomile tea and horsetail teas help too.

    • Shae

      Val, they survived! I just posted an update to show how they’re doing now. I think the cinnamon really did help, though increasing the ventilation was essential. If I let the environment get too wet, it comes back. I’d like to know what you decide to do.

  • Val

    Thanks for the update–it is encouraging that they made it. I am going to forge ahead with my seeds and be thankful the ventilation problem with my seed trays made itself known before I planted my heirloom seeds. I am letting the soil dry out thoroughly before I plant, and I sprinkled cinnamon also.

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