Three More Tips on Seed Starting – What the Gurus May Not Have Told You

It’s winter, and the garden is at rest, but I’ve been plenty busy, indoors, getting a head start on next year’s garden.

Starting plants from seed is one of my favorite winter gardening chores.  It requires very little time and effort, and I’m usually rewarded with almost instant results, as the shoots of new life begin emerging from the soil in just a matter of a days.

Starting plants from seed is also one of my favorite ways to save money in the garden.  For just a couple of bucks, I can produce hundreds of little seedlings for the same cost that I’d pay for six, or so,  at a local nursery or home store.

There are a lot of wonderful articles written by professional gardeners and garden bloggers to help the beginner and veteran gardener, alike, on seed starting.  Fine Gardening Magazine and Mother Earth News are two of my favorite sites to visit when I’m  searching for DIY and how-to gardening information.  Between the two of them (and all of the other gardening gurus on the net), they’ve pretty much got the subject fully covered.

However, it dawned on me the other day, as I was starting a new batch of brassica seedlings, that they didn’t tell me everything there is to know about seed starting, and there are a few things that I’ve learned, by myself, along the way that have made seed starting a little easier and cost effective for me.

So, just for the fun of it, I thought I’d share three of my own tips on seed starting with you – tips that you may have never learned from an expert gardener.

First, veteran gardeners will tell you that you want to choose a good seed starting medium – one that says “seed starting potting mix”, or something similar, on the bag.  Standard potting soil, or compost may be too rich an environment for seeds to germinate in, and soil from your yard will, most likely, contain too many weed seeds, bacteria, or fungi that will compete with the new seedlings –although you can use it if you sterilize it first (another great cost savings that I may need to think about doing in the future).

seed starter

One thing that they may not have told you, and I’ve learned, though, is that, when working with seed starting mix, make sure that you get it nice and wet before scooping it into your seed starting container.  How many times have I put the dry mix into the container and then attempted to add water to it, only to find the water beading up and running off of the surface and taking for-e-ver for the water to fully saturate the soil?  Let’s just say it was a while before I had my “a-ha!” moment.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but the best way to utilize this seed starting mix is to incorporate the water into the soil before ever attempting to add it to the planting container.  If you want to spend time planting, and not waiting for your soil mixture to get prepared to accept the seed, simply take a large mixing bowl, add in six or seven handfuls of soil, then add water and mix until all of the soil is nice and damp, and there are no dry spots left – you’ll be surprised at how much water it takes to saturate all of the mix.  (If you over-water, just squeeze the excess water out, in your hand, before putting the soil into your containers).

damp potting soil

Speaking of containers,   Mother Earth News says, “You can pick up various sizes of seed starting trays at your local garden center.”  They are absolutely correct, but that can get pretty expensive.  To be fair, they also mention that, “If you don’t want to purchase a setup like this, you can use recycled materials. For example, clean, empty yogurt cups with holes drilled in the bottom could be set inside a large baking pan to create a great tray kit.” I used to do the yogurt cup thing, and it worked fine for getting the seeds started, however it wasn’t the easiest to work with when it came to transplanting the baby seedlings, and this brings me to my second tip.  If I were to recommend one seed starting container, it would, hands down, have to be the toilet paper or paper towel tube container.  It’s practically free, the perfect size for seed starting, and makes transplanting seedlings a cinch.  I cut my tubes down to about an inch in size, then pack the wet, seed starting mixture into them.  When it’s time to do the transplanting, I simply unravel the tube and gain instant access to my seedlings.  Wish I would have known about this sooner!

tp seedling container

rows of seed starting containers

Now, I know that the cool, trendy, thing to do, right now, with these cardboard tube starters is to plant them directly into the ground, where the cardboard will decompose, feed the soil, and the plant will get off to a healthy start.  You are certainly welcome to do just that.

However, and this brings me to my third and final tip, if you start seeds the way that I do, you won’t want to plant the container into the ground, and here’s why:  When it comes to seed starting, I sow the seeds pretty heavily.  In other words,  I don’t  plant one seed per container.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  In my early days, I was pretty meticulous about doing just that.  Occasionally, however,  a rogue seed (or two) would escape my hand and end up in the same container as another seed without my knowing it until after the seedlings had sprouted.  At first, it used to bother me.  After all, I was trying to get my plants off to the best start possible and didn’t want any crowding going on at the root level because more than one plant was occupying the same starting cell.  Still, I could not bring myself to kill off any of the unwanted seedlings.  Besides, I figured, it was like getting another, free, plant!  And then, it hit me! (I know, you’re already there, aren’t you?)  What was I thinking, purposely planting one seed per container?  If I really wanted to get a bang for my buck, why not pack as many seeds into one cell as possible? After all, the laws of physics state that no two pieces of matter can occupy the same space, right?    Now, I know this might be upsetting some purists, but I’ve never had any problems with this method, to date.

multiple seedlings

seedling tray

Besides, all of my seedlings enjoy plenty of space in just a matter of weeks, when I pot them up into larger containers.

To save time, when potting up, I prefer to use store-bought, all-natural, fiber containers to house my little seedlings.  (I typically purchase them at the end of the summer, or early fall, when I can buy them for just pennies).

broccoli seedling

But, I’ve also made my own, larger containers,  using paper grocery bags, to save even more money.  They work just as well, and are really easy to make, as I’ve blogged about here.

paper bag pots

So, there you have it – my three, simple tips for seed starting that you can pack away, if you’d like, into your own gardening toolbox:  pre-soak your seed starting mix, use toilet paper and paper towel tubes for containers, and when it comes to seed sowing, don’t be afraid to pack lots of seed into every cell!  I hope that these tips were helpful, that you’ve learned something new, and that you’ll be able to utilize one or all of them when starting seeds for your very own garden, this year.

Do you have any special seed starting tips that you’ve learned on your own and that you’d like to share?