Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Mad Seed Starter

Considering hanging up my indoor seed-starting hat forever...

I'm hopping mad --- at myself.

I'm mad at myself for failing - consistently and repeatedly - with my efforts to start plants from seed indoors.

I don't have any problem raising plants (at least certain plants) from seed outdoors, but I'm pretty pathetic when it comes to starting seeds in pots indoors.

Well, actually, my first experiment (inspired by videos and blog posts like this) was to try starting seeds in eggshells.

My wife and I diligently saved our plastic clamshell egg containers and washed-out eggshells all winter. In the spring, I purchased a plastic table, grow light and timer, setting up the whole shebang in the garage. Then I packed the shells with plain old topsoil from a big-box store, dusted the soil with seeds and set back to watch the magic.

Sure enough, seeds sprouted!

But the seedlings never grew much. And most of them soon withered and died.

Perhaps I hadn't given them enough water and the soil had dried out?

So I tried again, heading to a growers' supply shop to purchase biodegradable peat pots and some good organic potting soil with fertilizers built in.

Once again -- good germination, not much growth, eventual wilting and death.

I'm tempted to give up on this whole indoor seed-starting business with its grow lights and timers and spray bottles. Instead, maybe I'll try a bit of cold-frame gardening next winter.

Or does anyone want to try to convince me to give it another try and enlighten me as to what I might be doing wrong? Should I try the bottom watering method shown here?


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  1. Hi Aaron. Great blog! I've got best results with seeds hardy enough to sow outdoors: vinca (Catharanthus roseus) and plain old marigolds for example. I did some aquilegia indoors early this year too. I transplanted them as soon as they were big enough to handle (first couple of real leaves), 3 per 3" pot, put them outdoors after midMay last frost date, then ignored them all summer apart from watering them. In the meantime I sowed the other half of the packet directly outdoors in a prepared bed, around May 15th. I have Carolina red clay here in Wake County NC so dug in plenty of compost. Also sowed dill and parsley. The plants sowed directly in ground are bigger and healthier than the aquilegia still languishing in pots on the deck... Apparently deer don't care for vInca, Marigolds and herbs. Just waiting til they're really hungry no doubt! C.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I did not realize that it was possible to sow annual vinca seeds outdoors. Interesting!

      As you have found, I have much better luck sowing seeds directly in the ground than I do in pots or in the garage under growlights.

      Mostly, I prefer starting seeds where they are meant to grow. But of course it would be nice to start some tender veggies (e.g., tomatoes) or tropical plants (hibiscus) indoors if it meant getting blooms before frost!

      Anyway, I'm moving more toward native plants, mostly perennials, that can be wintersowed in autumn as nature intended for sprouting the following spring.

      If you enjoy gardening for bees, I can recommend direct sowing partridge pea (Chamaechrista fasciculata) this autumn. It's probably my favorite native annual at the moment. Very easy to grow and self-sows once you've got a nice patch growing.

      PS - I agree with your findings that deer tend to ignore/avoid the very fragrant plants. Have you tried Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop). Another great plant for both bees and goldfinches. Loooooooong bloom season. Probably not terribly long-lived, but it does self-sow moderately. And since it's fragrant, the deer and rabbits tend to ignore it. It's not a Southeast native, but at least it's native to North America.

  2. You didn't by any chance use the 'topsoil' from Lowes did you? I refer to it as 'black poison'. I've never been able to grow anything in it. I quit using it years ago.

    1. I might have made that exact mistake.

      May I ask what seed starting soil you use?

      PS - Like I said, I didn't have much better luck when I used peat pots and fancy organic seed starting soil. I often do much better starting seeds outdoors, at least with wildflower seeds (results not as solid/steady with veggie seeds).

  3. Hey, Aaron. I only use Al's 5:1:1 potting mix for everything now. Even seeds. I'm successful with a lot of seeds, some not. As for the losses, not sure if it's my method or bad seed.
    If you want to give Al's 5:1:1 here's the link for details:
    I highly recommend it. I can grow plants with it now that I couldn't before with storebought crap.

    1. Thanks again for this suggestion. I'll give it a try. In the past, I've avoided peat moss over concerns about depletion of peat bogs, but I'm probably just outsourcing that concern to 3rd party growers. From an eco standpoint, I imagine it's best to grow one's own plants as much as possible?

  4. Don't they 'farm' sphagnum now? I was thinking it's a renewable resource.

    1. Seems like you're right about the sphagnum farming. Thanks for educating. Still not quite sure how sustainable and eco the harvesting and farming process is, but it's good to know the sphagnum is at least theoretically renewable!


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