Starting Seeds for Dummies – Beginners

By:  Richard Godke

Starting seeds for dummies can be easy, cost-effective, and fun for the whole family. As a gardener you are no longer held hostage by the plant suppliers. Starting seeds at home allows you to choose the vegetables and varieties you prefer, including heirloom and non-genetically modified organisms (GMO) varieties. By starting plants indoors you can get production up to a month earlier than planting seeds directly in the garden. Planting indoors also gives the seedlings protection against the cold, lack of moisture, and pests. My past failures with starting seeds at home have led to a surefire system that allows the beginner to be successful. My starting seeds for dummies system will cover what and when to plant, proper temperatures, correct lighting, choosing the soil and container, fertilizer, watering, and hardening off the plants. Remember, always read and follow the package information. I have also included a list of materials needed, and a step-by-step procedure to help you get started.

Starting Seeds for Dummies: What and When to Plant

If you’re just learning how to start plants indoors I recommend the following cool season vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, and kohlrabi. They need to be started about seven weeks before the final frost free date in your area.  My recommendations for warm season vegetables include: tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. This group needs to be started about six weeks before the last frost free date in your area. Here is a great website that will help you decide when to plant different crops in your area: http://allthingsplants.com/apps/calendar/.

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Figure 2. Starting seeds for dummies suggests only use a seedling heat mat only during germination. Photo from http://tscpl.org/home/growing-plants-under-artificial-lights.

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Required Environmental Temperatures

Every plant has a preferred germination and growing temperature. For more details on individual vegetables check out http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/vegetable/temperature.html. The serious gardener uses a seedling heat mat that will keep the seeds a constant temperature (see figure 2). The heat mat along with a cover to hold in moisture will result in quicker and more uniform germination with less chance of diseases.  If one does not want to spend the money, find the warmest spot you have in the house. The top of the refrigerator is sometimes a good spot. Here are some general germinating temperatures I use. Tomatoes, peppers, or eggplants sprout best at temperatures between 80 to 85°F (27 to 29°C). Broccoli, cabbage, collards kale, cauliflower and kohlrabi are best germinated between 75 to 80°F (24 to 27°C). After germination, quickly move the seeds to a brightly lit area that is 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C). Make sure to remove the plastic cover as soon as the plants start to germinate. This allows the plants get plenty of air movement in keeps the surface dry.

 

Figure 3. Lighting system at the proper height above seedlings. Photo by http://www.whatscookingwithruthie.com/2012/04/30/how-our-garden-grows-week-2/

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Critical Lighting Requirements

Light is the most critical factor that affects starting seedlings indoors.  A south facing window with 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight will provide the minimum amount of light needed. I recommend an additional 12 to 16 hours of artificial fluorescent light. An outlet timer will help you manage the on and off cycle of the artificial light. It is critical to keep the lights 1 to 2 inches above the plants. A simple fluorescent shop light (4-footers with two 40-watt bulbs) works great (see figure 3). Light-emitting diode ( LED) lighting is another option for plants that cost about 50% more for the purchase and costs about 60% less to operate.  The big advantage of the LED light units is that with the proper controller you can adjust the color range that the specific plants best preform in. Be aware that the lights will cause the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets to dry out quickly. A lack of light results in a tall skinny plant that is very susceptible to dampening off disease.

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Soil Media and Containers

My starting seeds for dummies system uses Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets instead of soil.  This compressed sphagnum peat moss held together in a find net bag help prevent soil disease problems. When water is applied to these pellets they swell to little bundles that the roots love to grow in. Watch how they expand when exposed to warm water http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UNNR_gcKzo&feature=youtu.be  . The seedlings can be planted directly into the garden, and the seedlings take off quickly because the roots are not disturbed. Make sure you start the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets in a container big enough to allow them to expand. The containers should also allow for easy watering from the bottom. If you choose to reuse containers, rinse items in a solution of one part chlorine bleach and ten parts water. Let them dry before filling with soil.

My second choice for soil and containers are complete commercial growing kits. These kits include: properly mixed and sterilized soil, plastic growing cells, clear dome cover, and instructions. Some even include the seeds. These kits are more expensive, but the consistent results are worth the money.

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Required Fertilization

The Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets contain very small amounts of fertilizer. I recommend using a complete water-soluble fertilizer like (J. R. Petters inc. All Purpose 20-20-20 Water Soluble Fertilizer, or Miracle-Gro® Water Soluble Tomato Plant Food 18-18-21). After the first true leaves appear on the seedlings, apply the first dose of fertilizer solution. Use only one-half the recommended label rate for the first application. The fertilizer solution should be applied until the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets will not absorb any more solution. Too much fertilizer will cause the plant to be tall, spindly and susceptible to dampening off disease. Use the fertilizer manufacturers’ label recommended rate; usually 1 tablespoon per gallon. Water with fertilizer every two weeks until the plants are set outdoors.

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Important Watering Suggestions

Only water the soil from the bottom of the growing media. Watering from the top encourages the dreaded dampening off disease. The environmental conditions in your home will determine how much and how often you will need to water your seedlings. Try to let the plants get as dry as possible without letting the plants wilt. Add a small amount of water in the base of the container until the media no longer absorbs water. You will soon be able to determine how often and how much your seedlings need to be watered. It is better to keep them to dry, than to keep them to wet.  For more information about raising plants without soil, check out: Easy Hydroponics for Beginners.

Hardening off plants is the process of acclimating your seedlings to the harsh outdoor environment. This process should be started two weeks before planting outdoors. When the temperature is about 45°F or 7°C., the plants should be set outside in a protected area for two hours each day. Gradually increase the length of time the plants are exposed to the outdoor elements of direct sun, cool temperatures, and drying winds. This is a very important step that will prevent the plants from going into shock when they’re transplanted.

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Materials

Waterproof container that can be watered from the bottom, with plastic cover to hold in humidity.

12 compressed Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets

1 South facing window with 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight and/or 1 fluorescent shop light

1 outlet timer

1 thermometer

1 4 cup measuring cup

12 labels

1 marking pen

1 packet of seeds

Starting Seeds for Dummies: Planting the Seeds

Figure 4. Starting seeds for dummies with health tomato seedling.
  1. Select a waterproof container large enough to hold Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets when they have fully swollen. The container needs to be small enough so the fully expanded pellets do not tip over when moved.
  2. Select and make labels for the seeds that you will be planting.
  3. Place Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets with the open side up. The container must allow the pellets to be watered from the bottom.
  4. One hour before planting, wet the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets to a point where they will not absorb any more water.
  5. With a pencil make three or four holes in the top of each Jiffy-7 plant starter pellet that is about 2 to 3 times the size of the seed.
  6. Put 3 or 4 seeds in each pellet.
  7. Cover the seeds by pushing down the top of the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets.
  8. Put your plastic dome over the tray holding the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets to keep them from drying out.
  9. Place the trays in a warm spot in the house or a seedling mat. Do not place covered containers in direct sunlight.
  10. Remove the plastic dome when the seeds start to sprout.
  11. Move seedling trays to a South facing window that gets 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight or move under a fluorescent lights for16 to 20 hours a day.  Light should be placed 2 to 4 inches above the plants. Maintain night temperatures of 60-65°F (15-18°C); Daytime temperatures should be about 10°F higher.
  12. A fan blowing over the seedlings will help them adjust to the outdoors. Harden off the plants
  13. Thin to one plant per Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets by snipping the extra sprouts off with a pair of scissors. Do not pull them out by the roots.
  14. If the plants get too large. they can be moved into larger individual pots.
  15. . Water from the bottom as needed. Allow drying periods between each watering.
  16. Fertilize seedlings every two weeks as recommended above.
  17. Begin to harden off seedlings two weeks before moving the plants outdoors.

You can now easily start seeds at home with my starting seeds for dummies system. You are in control of the varieties and planting times. Here is a very good video from the National Gardening Association that gives you additional ideas for starting seeds at home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FGH3MBZ21M&feature=youtu.be. By using the Jiffy-7 plant starter pellets you have a reliable, low cost growing media. The seedlings can be planted directly in the garden without disturbing the soil ball. Light is the most important factor in starting seeds at home. Allow direct light for 16 hours per day with the lights being 2 to 4 inches above the plants. Biweekly fertilization will result in stocky, dark green plants that are disease resistant. Two weeks before transplanting outside you will need to harden off your plants. Slowly introduce your tender seedlings to the harsh outdoor environment over that two-week period. This will prevent plant shock that slows the plant’s growth. My starting seeds for dummies system will allow you to reliably produce healthy vigorous plants for your garden at a reasonable cost.

Resource List

“Starting Seeds Indoors”, Publication HO-14-W, Reviewed 4/2001, Michael N. Dana and B. Rosie Lerner Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

“Starting Plants Indoors From Seeds”, Publication G6570, Revised 6/2010, David H. Trinklein, Division of Plant Sciences, University of Missouri Extension.

“Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors” Fact sheet FS787, Published 3/1995, Peter J. Nitzsche, Morris County Agricultural Agent & Stephen Reiners, Ph.D., Extension Specialist in Vegetable Crops, Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension