Updated: Apr 12, 2022
Not surprisingly the recipe for growing good strong and healthy plants lies in the seed.
Compare it to a human being and you'll know that whatever goes into the beginning of life matters hugely to the health and happiness and thriving of any human being.
So to begin with seeds the quality obviously starts with the plants that produced the seeds, how they were grown and harvested, the lineage (resilient and versatile heritage, open pollinated or hybrid breeds),
how the seeds were stored, and where you purchase them.
But after all that it's the germinating that counts and the first few weeks in the new plant's life.
This blog post is about how to create optimal conditions to get your plants off to a good start with a simple set-up.
People I talk to use different soil starters. You may find you have to choose one that works for you based on how you pot, plant and water. Gardening is like that, it'll be successful to the degree you make it suit your way of doing things.
However, my preference is a very lightweight well fertilized growing medium. My last blog was all about making soil starter. https://www.lowbushartworks.com/post/make-your-own-potting-soil-for-seed-starting
This is key! Seeds germinate best within a certain temperature range. Heat loving plants like tomatoes, squash and peppers like a balmy 80º - 90ºF (25º - 30ºC). Brassica, onions, swiss chard and beets (yes, I do transplant beets) can do with a little less at around 75º - 78ºF (22º - 25ºC). And lettuce, peas and spinach prefer it even cooler at around 68ºF (20ºC). Just to give you an idea. If you google it you'll find plenty of germination temperature charts online.
So to both maximize your use of space in seed trays or pots and to give your plants a happy entrance to the season it makes a lot of sense to find a warm space for them to germinate as many seeds as you can. (Note that you have to watch out if it gets too warm. Seeds respond worse to overheating than to little lower than optimal temperatures to germinate.)
In our house I've learned to find the perfect place by following the heat and that is going up.
I installed a high platform (away from kids, dogs and cats) in front of our upstairs bedroom window. It fits appr. 10 trays which is plenty for my operation of staggered seed germination. One batch takes about a week and then I can make room for more trays by moving the little sprouts to another place.
There is no light required to germinate. But once the first green comes out they need light immediately, so you have to keep your eye on them.
I like this window spot, because the sun shining in provides warmth in addition to the warmth from the wood stove below our bedroom. And, of course, I can leave the young seedlings in this space a little longer to balm in the south facing light if I want to.
Other warm spaces in your house may include the boiler room or your furnace room or a shelf above or beside a heat source. Anywhere away from drafts and fresh air coming in from outside (as that means cold air if you life in a northern climate like we do).
Ben Hartman goes into great detail about germinating seeds in germinating chambers (air and temperature controlled spaces you can also build from scratch) in his book "The Lean Farm Guide to growing Vegetable" https://www.claybottomfarm.com
It's quite interesting to consider this, even if you just want to better understand the germination process.
Paying attention to the temperature has made a hug difference for my spring nursery success. I've moved from a bit of a guessing game of what will come up to being able to plan my garden a lot more reliably.
I sometimes start off with just using a spray bottle to soak the soil without the weight of water pouring onto it. That helps avoid compaction. Though with more trays to water it gets a little tedious. So I've moved on to trial and error watering cans. Good ones seem hard to find. Here's an amazon link to one I really like. https://www.amazon.ca/AutKerige-Watering-Can-Outdoor-Detachable/dp/B0957ZJ1FM
My light fluffy version of soil starter with lots of peat moss and perlite requires a fair bit of watering because it dries out quickly. I water about twice a day. More soil based, heavier starters require less watering as they hold water longer and will get too heavy and compacted if you overwater.
Once germinated you want to quickly provide good light to your seedlings. Even in my sun flooded south facing window the little plants stretch for the light. If that's all you have, you can make it work. Rotate the plants once in a while and hope for sunny days.
But overhead lighting is the best, in the sense of imitating nature or nature through the greenhouse cover. I use LED full spectrum lights. (I wrote more about these here.)
And the closer the lights are to the little plants the better. As they grow taller you adjust the height of the lights as well.