Shout out to me. You may or may not know that I am not only an eloquent distiller of food growing and food growing adjacent information, but that I also run a practical plant nursery by the name of Hot Plants. As such, I know a thing or two about growing herbs, vegetables, and more from seed. However, I am not here today to share with you all of my professional seed starting secrets, as they are utterly impractical for the home gardener, the uber-efficient hydroponic farmer of the future, or most folks in between. I grow my seeds to fail, so that only the strongest survive, that they may grow with ferocity and gusto once transplanted to whatever home chooses them. This is not what you need just now, so instead I’ll share what I know of how to grow seeds for yourself, at home, practically and efficiently, for maximum yield and the winning sensation that you’ve done right by the world in bringing new life to revel in the sun and turn its rays into salad.
First things first: you need seeds. I like to buy seeds from Johnny’s Select seed, Territorial Seed, Baker Creek, Southern Exposure, and Richters. There are myriad other places to get seeds that are amazing; those are just my personal picks. Even better, collect your own. It’s easier than you think, if you’ve got the patience (that is for another time, though). Next, you’ll need something to put your seeds in, namely, soil. Also, you’ll need something to put your soil in, preferably plastic cell trays, but you’ve got options here.
First, the soil. You don’t want to cheat here. Freshly germinated seedlings are extremely sensitive creatures and need to be treated to the most delicate of dirts if they are to be assured a happy and carefree youth. This means you want light, easy, extremely porous, yet water-retaining soil that has little to no organic life or fertilizer in it, mycorrhizae (symbiotic fungus) being a notable exception. This probably means a soil that is mostly made of sphagnum peat and perlite. Perlite is volcanic glass superheated—the stuff you see in soil mixes that looks like styrofoam (it’s not). Perlite is perfectly natural and there’s plenty of it in the world. Sphagnum peat is a little more problematic and the regular use of it in gardening has potentially grave consequences for world ecosystems, arguably as grievous as the loss of our wetlands here in Louisiana. But it’s really great for starting seeds in, and you probably drive a car, so keep your high and mighties in check, OK?
As per containers for soil, plastics make efficient plant growing possible. I’m sorry, I know it’s not what you wanted to hear. Egg trays—everyone’s favorite seed-starting container since elementary school—are terrible for starting seeds, unless they’re made of styrofoam, which is even worse for the environment than plastic. Most egg trays are made of pulped paper, which is high in carbon, and high carbon materials leech nitrogen, water, and other nutrients from soil so that they can break down and become dirt. It’s part of the carbon cycle, everybody’s favorite infographic since elementary school. What this means for your seeds is that they don’t get the nutrients they need from that super high quality soil you’ve put them in, and so they will get stunted before they even have a real shot at life. You don’t have to use cell trays to grow seed, but ideally you want something that holds soil, is at least an inch deep, has holes in it, and is compartmentalized for individual seeds. This last part isn’t necessary, but preferable. As long as you are delicate when you transplant your seedlings, you can pull apart the roots of your babies from each other if you grow all your seeds in, say, one big colander.
Inadequate light is by far the most common cause of failed seedling production. If you’re not going to start your seeds outdoors (which you shouldn’t do anyway unless you have some sort of hoop-house or other structure that keeps rain and wind out, moderates temperature, and still lets direct sun in all day), a window sill is not enough. Most seedlings don’t need light to germinate, but they definitely need plenty of regular light as they enter their toddler faze. The best, and to my mind, only cheap and easy way to do this is to buy a cheap fluorescent shop-light for your babies. You don’t need a fancy UV purple light or anything like this, but a simple light bulb won’t do you any good, either. You need evenly distributed light with an adjustable height that is set close to your seedlings, about an inch away from the tallest one at any given time. You also need to use a timer, or to pay close attention, because they need 12 to 16 hours of light each day. This is serious. Less light and they’ll get leggy; too much light and they’ll get stunted; any sub-par or far away or non-distributed light will cause trouble. Don’t cheat unless you’re a glutton for failure.
Water delicately, as if you were manifesting a cold fog coming off the Mississippi on a late winter warm spell. It doesn’t matter how you actualize this, by bottle or mister or holes poked in aluminum wrapped around an old dirty bucket—just be gentle. And water thoroughly, that is to say, make sure your soil is saturated after every watering. Also, once your seeds have germinated, be sure to let your soil dry for the most part before watering again. This will probably mean watering every three to five days at first, then every other day once the seedlings start building larger root systems.
Broadly speaking, most vegetable and herb seeds need a temperature between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate, a spectrum that, barring extremely uncomfortable living conditions, most households fall into just fine without particular adjustments. These same seeds generally germinate within one to four weeks of their first taste of water. If your seeds haven’t popped up after a month, you’ve done something wrong, the seeds are no good, or you’re trying to grow something really cool and weird that has specific dormancy, light, temperature, or other specifications necessary to bring it to life. When seed companies tell you that you need to use seeds less than a year old, they are not being greedy capitalists poking at your shopaholic buttons. The older seeds get, the poorer their germination rates. Keeping seeds in freezers extends their lives significantly, but don’t be surprised if your free seed packets from Parkway Partners dated for 2015 don’t do anything.
Most seedlings are kind of sort of ready for transplanting once they’ve developed a few true leaves. That is to say, the leaves they produce after their initial two leaves, formally known as cotyledons. You can wait for some time after that to transplant if need be. As an extremely general rule, I’d say most plants could stand to sit in cell trays for about two months after germinating, if need be. When transplanting, it’s best to pull them out when soil is dry, as the roots of seedlings grip the soil around them more fiercely when there isn’t much water in it, and this makes for less damage and sun exposure to the roots and a nice little soil ball (or square, or cylinder) to move over into your large pots or raised beds or wherever it is you put such things when they grow up. Fertilize and water your adolescent babies generously as they are let free unto the world, then watch them turn into food for you to eat as the days go by. Also and finally, right now is a great time to buy seeds and supplies but an absolutely inappropriate time to actually start seeds. Hold tight until mid-August, then let fly all your unborn children unto your carefully curated soil and begin your exploration into birthing your own food full bore.