Garden Q + A: How Do You Care For Seedlings?
Happy Monday! It's time to start seeds here in Iowa. I was going to share this post last Monday, but for whatever reason, I was starting a few of my own seeds for the year and felt like waiting for those first sprouts to show would feel a bit more symbolic. I was right! On Friday morning Tad and I wandered downstairs. As I was checking on the seeds, I beckoned him to come over and take a peek at one of our kale trays where little sprouts were peeking out of the soil. "Hello, baby plants!" he said and gave them each little kisses. It was precious! Seeing the first sprouts gave me all kinds of energy and motivation for spring and a bit of confidence that my seeds in fact did come up again this year. You just never know what will happen!
One of the most frequently asked questions we receive from our readers is, "How do I care for seedlings?" and it's one that's really a bit more simple than many assume, though there are a few rules that can make your life easier. I hear from lots about their struggles with getting seeds to germinate and alike with keeping their seedlings alive. Hopefully today I can break down what to do and provide some ease.
How Do I Start Plants From Seed?
Deciding if you want to start your plants from seed or purchase transplants from your local nursery is one of the first questions that you need to ask yourself when it comes to starting your garden. Is one or the other a better choice? Not really! It all depends on how big you want your garden to be, how much money you want to spend, and when exactly you are hoping to harvest your vegetables. There are a few other opinions in there that could be a potential sway in your decision like if your local nursery offers organic transplants or how high the quality of your seeds are and if they were treated. Does that matter in the long run? Mmm... it really depends on how much you care! For me, I like to start all of my plants from seeds if possible and purchase them as untreated, non-GMO, and organic. I also am growing them this way for others to eat! To me, this is the best choice and quality, but you have to make that decision yourself and for your family. Why do I start all of my plants from seed? It's cheaper! It is so much cheaper to buy seeds, especially for the amount of plants you have the potential to grow. If you think that seed trays are potentially just as expensive, they really are worth it considering you can save them for years at a time. Also, by starting seeds, you can plant much earlier as transplants usually aren't available to purchase until later in the season.
Now, how do you start them exactly? I have a post from last spring about all of the equipment and steps you need to take to start seeds that still has great information in it. I have changed a few opinions from then to now, but the principles are the same and you'll have good luck there.
How Do I Care For My Seedlings?
So you planted your seeds... now what? This year, I learned that bottom watering is often better than overhead water or even misting. You need a drainage tray without holes that goes under your planting trays. Just pour a couple of cups of water into the drainage tray, and the seeds soak it up into the soil. This helps especially for particularly small seeds like snapdragons that are planted at the soil surface. If sprayed, you could potentially push those seeds into the corners of your trays and they may never start or get a good grip with their roots. Once seeds germinate is usually where most have trouble. How much do I water? Why are my seedlings leggy and thin? When do I take the humidity dome off?
Watering can be difficult to get the hang of! My biggest tip? Remind yourself to check on your plants every day. If that means setting an alarm on your phone, then do that! I usually check first thing in the morning to see how everyone is looking. If the soil appears dry, always test with your finger to see if the soil underneath is still moist. Seedlings need moisture. If the entire little seed cubicle is dry, they need to be watered. If just the topsoil is dry and the rest is moist, they're fine. If you bottom water, you really won't need to water much at all! It takes a while for that to dry up.
If your seedlings are looking leggy and thin, then you might have too many sprouts in one little cubicle. Usually when you start seeds, you plant a couple in each spot just in case one doesn't germinate. If you have multiple sprouts in a cubicle, you have to remove others and leave only one. They will compete for space and become weakened. This is a good way to start a new tray from the extra seedlings, something that is done meticulously but is so worth it! Other reasons can be inadequate light as they reach to seek it out, too high of temperatures, or not enough moisture in the soil.
Which leads me to, when to take off the humidity dome. This should be done as soon as most of your seedlings have sprouted! They don't need that humidity anymore. Whether you use a commercial dome or a piece of plastic wrap, take it off once the entire tray has germinated and popped out of the soil.
What Kind of Soil Medium Should I Use?
Use either a potting soil or a seed starting mix. There are differences between them, but I don't feel they are enough to matter when it comes to getting started for your first time. Of course, if you had to pick between the two, then seed starting mix would be best. The biggest inconvenience is that potting soil may not have as many added nutrients as a "seed starter" which allows your starts to live in the trays for several months. Commercial seed starter mixes also hardly contain a compost material, which I think is strange since most homemade seed starting mix is made with compost... This year I am using potting soil with extra added coconut coir for moisture retention. Most potting mixes are made with peat moss (which is heavily dropping in resource levels all over the world... coconut coir is more sustainable right now!), perlite (volcanic rock that help promote better drainage and aeration), vermiculite (expanded mica that helps hold nutrients and water), and shredded bark. Added compost is great because of its beneficial nutrients and even mixed in worm castings is ideal! Never use the soil from outside! You want your mix to be soilless so that they do not become compacted.
When Should I Start My Seeds?
Most seed packets have good instructions on when that particular plant and variety need to be started. It's important to know what your first and last frost dates are for the season. If you'd like a more list-like schedule for when to start all of your plants, check out our Spring Planting Guide.
Can I Start Seeds Without a Greenhouse?
Yes! Of course! You do not need a greenhouse to start seeds. While they can be beautiful and handy, especially if you plan to start a lot of seeds, you can successfully start all of your vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside of your home. I am currently starting my seeds in my dining room because I don't have a greenhouse to use! They need a place that keeps the soil at around 65 degrees, at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, and sufficient watering. Your southeast facing windows are perfect and a simple pop-up table will suffice. Inside of the house at this time of year in the Heartland is probably best, especially if you don't have access to a heated space outside. If you want to start them outdoors in a greenhouse, just make sure you have some sort of bottom heat source like a plant heat mat, though they only need this heat until they germinate. Once they sprout, they don't require this anymore!
Okay, I think that's it! If you feel there is anything I missed, please let me know in the comments. Happy seed starting, friends!