Monday, April 1, 2013

Sprouting Seeds - The Adventure Begins!

Up and growing! Burgundy amaranth seemed to germinate especially easily in just a few days. So did the bunny tails, which are already exhibiting their grass-like appearance (second row from the top). The zinnias on the top row are a little harder to see in this photo, but they germinated really well too. The bottom row here (cut off in the photo) are cucumber-leaf sunflowers, where germination seems a bit more erratic.

I love starting annual flowers and vegetables from seeds, but until about a week ago, I had always direct seeded my plants in the garden rather than trying to start them indoors.

For some reason, I thought starting seeds indoors sounded too hard - I'd need a propagation bench and special lights and seed starting soil etc. etc.

Well, I was at Home Depot recently to pick up some mulch and saw a little seed starting kit from Burpee on sale for around $10 or $12. It included a reusable seed tray, expandable coconut coir pellets as a growing medium (they expand when you pour warm water on them) and a transparent lid to create a greenhouse effect. There's a mat that uses capillary action to soak up water from a reservoir to give the seeds water from the bottom, so you don't even need to worry about misting the plants.

I figured, what the heck? Why not give it a try.

My wife and I sowed the seeds together on March 26th - Zinnias, Bunny Tails (a.k.a. Lagurus ovatus), Burgundy Amaranth, Strawflowers, Cucumber-Leaf Sunflowers and Clemson Spineless Okra. (Well, actually the okra was planted on March 27th because I forgot that it's best to soak okra seeds in water for 24 hours to aid germination.)

Instead of using fancy grow lights, I decided to just rely on natural sunlight and place the seed tray on a luggage bench at the southwest corner of the house nestled between two windows.

Here's another slightly more distant shot that shows you the okra that has sprouted (somewhat unevenly) in the bottom cells. I'm a little worried that the growing medium may not be dense enough for the okra, which seems to have flopped over already, but time will tell...

Then I went away for the weekend to visit family, came back today and - voila! - plenty of sprouts are up and growing!!

Honestly, I'm not quite sure what to do next.

I seeded 2-4 seeds per cell thinking I might not get 100% germination and that I could thin them later on. I'm figuring I should wait until the seedlings start getting a bit stronger and sturdier and then try to thin to the strongest one in each cell?

It was just last week that we sowed the seeds. Here you can see the process of pouring warm water (which we heated on the stove) into each of the cells in order to expand the coir pellets. It's fun watching the pellets rise like a loaf of bread in the oven! So far, the seed starting process has been really enjoyable.

And when should I transplant these outdoors? From what I understand, it's typical to start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before planting outside, but I worry that these plants would be completely root-bound in that length of time. Maybe better to transplant in just a couple of weeks, provided that temperatures outdoors are warm enough? We've had a cool March, but the long-range forecast seems to show warmer weather ahead.

Our average last frost date is ~April 15th. Maybe I should set them outside sometime after that, presuming the look strong enough?

And should I remove the translucent plastic cover at some point? I don't want the seedlings to have their growth stunted by bumping into the lid, which some already seem on the verge of doing.

Advice and suggestions from experienced indoor seed-starters would be greatly appreciated!!

Thanks :)


  1. I started seeds inside for the first time as well. I did tomatoes (2kinds), some cucumbers, green peppers and onions. The tomatoes did wonderfully using window sun like you. Some onions started but didn't do well. The cucumbers got really lanky. I am in the high desert of California and we are warm enough already that I have put my tomatoes and cucumbers out. Some of each have died but most of the tomatoes and some of the cucumbers are still growing. I have been gone for a week and hope that my garden caregivers have kept a good eye on them. The only thing I judged the time to put them out by was the night temp. I waited until it was past 40 degrees. I also read that to help in the transplanting you should put them outside for a few hours a day to get them used to it. I think this is called hardening. I did that and it seemed to be okay. Sometimes they got a little wind beaten but they overcame that. Good luck with yours.

  2. My suggestion is that after good and supposedly even germination (first pair of leaves), during the day time you keep the lid off and set it on again for the night in order to keep the humidity inside.
    At the latest when seedlings have developed their second pair of leaves you transfer (re-pot) them to a larger pot with rich compost especially if you have used medium for germination or coir which are poor in nutrients.
    This is pretty much how I do. Others may have better solutions for your taste.

    1. Thanks for the advice, smakkjakk.

      I will probably follow the first part about trying to keep the lid off during the day and on at night.

      The second part about re-potting, I will probably ignore (no doubt to my detriment) only because I don't have any larger pots nor any potting soil and I'm keen to practice low-input gardening (at least for now).

      My idea is to simply transplant the seedlings directly outdoors in a couple of weeks. (If I were going to keep them indoors for longer, I'm sure I would try to re-pot them to keep them from getting rootbound, but I guess I feel it makes sense to minimize the number of transplants...

      I understand my approach is probably idiosyncratic - or maybe just idiotic? ;-)

    2. Aaron, Don't you think this is just about the most fun in the world? I know it always has been for me. It's always been mind-boggling, too, that so much promise is in one tiny seed. Think about it: all those tomatoes yielded from one seed. I think that's why I'm such a fanatic about keeping every single seed and, low and behold, should I drop one and lose it!

      A couple of things I learned along the way: When you transplant these seedlings, lift them by the leaves - NOT the stems. Leaves grow back, but stems do not, so if one breaks, you're covered. Also, don't transplant them immediately after you take them out of the house: acclimate them gradually to life outdoors. Begin with maybe a window open, or move them to the porch outside, one step at a time out into the sun and the real world. That way they won't be shocked. Give them as much light as you can inside; you might need to turn the tray so they won't all bend toward the light. I've grown plants in the house before I had a greenhouse, and I never had enough light. Everything grew tall and spindly, so give them as much light as you can. And, yes, do lift off that lid after they get their true leaves. I usually do that gradually, too: lifting the lid a little at a time. I'd wait until they get a really good root system going before I transplanted them. I don't think they'll be root-bound. There's no telling what you'll be growing next.

    3. Thanks for your comment, Dottie.

      I have to admit I was pretty darn excited when I saw those sprouts in the tray! :)

      And yes, it does seem like a miracle to get a whole plant from such a tiny beginning - mostly with just sunlight and water added.

      Thanks for the tips on transplanting and acclimation. How many days do you use to acclimate seedlings? One fellow on Google+ recommended taking a couple of weeks and doing it really slowly.

      I have tried turning the tray and will probably turn it again a few more times.

      I can definitely see how seed-starting can be addictive! (Particularly if the transplanted seedlings have a good survival rate.) ;)

      PS - Do you give your seedlings any fertilizer? I haven't given them any yet, but was thinking about adding a little dilute fertilizer to their water at some pt. I think the seed-starting kit recommends giving fertilizer when seedlings are ~4 weeks old.

      PPS - Do you think seedlings started indoors actually grow faster than ones direct-seeded? I have some spinach and beet seedlings that I direct seeded outdoors weeks ago. Germination has been uneven on those and some of them are still smaller than the indoor seedlings I planted last week. Of course, temps have been a lot cooler outdoors...

    4. A few comment to add.
      Me too very much on the addiction mode. Don't wanna lose a single seed or seedling which is just ridiculous when you think about it.

      If you someday choose to re-pot some seedlings, my experience is that the sooner you do it, especially when they germinate in a dense lump, the easier it will be as their roots are quite simple at that stage. If you wait for too long the roots get entangled and the possibility doing damage to the tweenies just gets higher. I understand that if you are going to take them out very soon after germination there's no need for repotting. The practice also varies according to where one lives and how long the growing season is in general.

      At the beginning there's no need for fertilizing as the soil provides what the tiny plant needs to build a more robust build. You might end up killing them if you start adding nutrients too early. Only when the growth is in full pace and the plant has reached somewhat an adult appearance it is good to slowly start fertilizing so that the plant gets accustomed to the increased level of nutrients in the soil, even here too much can kill. Of course this may vary a bit depending on what kind of plants you're growing, flowers or vegetables etc.

      The speed how plants grow depends on the conditions provided not the timing when germinated, mostly. But again depending where one lives the season might not be long enough to get desired results without starting the growing process indoors quite early in the spring. Take some flowers there are species that may take up to 100 days from germination before they start blooming even if the growing conditions otherwise would be ideal. But like you mentioned for you outdoor plants the conditions aren't as ideal as to their counterparts indoors so you see the point there.

      Hope this is of some help to you. Always pleasure to share.

    5. Aaron, I've just read your questions, so sorry my answers are late. I think the general rule, and the one I follow, is to begin giving seedlings fertilizer (1/4 strength) as soon as they have true leaves. They have expended all their resources germinating, and they need something extra. Sometimes I don't always have time for this, but I try to do this. Be sure it's diluted to 1/4 strength, though; that's important.

      I think it just depends on what you're growing, as to whether it's faster inside or outside. I never start perennials outside. They take longer, some need stratification, and so much can go wrong: animals destroying the bed, weather,time constraints. I like those somewhere where they're protected and I can monitor them easily. I usually grow annual flowers outside. If the weather's right, I have had zinnia seeds germinate overnight: no lie. I grow some vegetable seeds (tomatoes and peppers, for example) inside since they take a couple of weeks to germinate. If I waited until the ground was warm enough here to plant seeds outside, I would never get a tomato. So, I start those inside, repot, and plant when the weather's right.

      Really, the best way I know to learn about any of this is just to do it. Nothing beats first-hand experience.

  3. I haven't tried indoor seeds much--like you, I think it sounds too complicated ... and too messy. But I like your idea of using natural light. I keep saying I'm going to try winter sowing, but I never get around to that either. My hubby did buy me a simple greenhouse, though, and I'm thinking I should set that up soon and start some plants in it. Good luck!

    1. Not too complicated yet, but I'm sure there will be complications ahead ;-)

  4. I remove the plastic cover as soon as they germinate. I also transplant the seedlings into larger pots to let them grow bigger and stronger...there is also hardening off period as you get them used to be outside in shade and move to more direct sun...I grow many of my annuals and veggies inside...good luck

    1. Thanks Donna. I don't think I'll repot indoors, but I will try to harden them off before transplanting.


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