You may think it is a little early to write about planting seeds, but if you are just starting out it will take some time to get your supplies and equipment.  Also if you want the fun of starting seeds this winter, you might put some of the supplies on your Christmas list.

          Some seed packets say to refrigerate your seeds for 6 to 8 weeks before planting so get your seeds early and look for special instructions. A good setup may cost a little, and may not be worthwhile for just a few plants. But if you want a plant not commonly sold in Garden Centers or you just plain want to see if you can start something from seed, it is fun to try. Also you can do this almost anywhere in the house.

          Regular garden soil is full of all sorts of creatures like fungus and bacteria so if you use it you and your seeds are living dangerously.  Secondly, regular garden soil packs hard and makes it difficult for seeds to start and the roots to go down like they should. Even ordinary potting mixes can cause trouble.  So it is safest to purchase special germinating media which usually contains fine sphagnum moss that controls stem rot and vermiculite. Some also have perlite.

          Seeds germinate better if the soil is warm. Most vegetable and flower seeds germinate best at 70 to 75 degrees F. There are heating pads made for this and sold at Garden Centers. George starts his seeds in a warm furnace room. If the motor is on top of your refrigerator, it may be warm enough up there.  This is ok if it has plenty of light.  Some seed packets say “do not cover as light is needed to germinate”. In this case you will need a florescent light to provide this. 

          Since I start a number of plants from seed, I have a two different seed starting set ups in the basement.  The first one includes a heating pad the size of the seed starting trays. I use the kind of black plastic trays that nurseries and garden centers use to display and sell plants from. They have holes in the bottom. You may even have one or two from a previous year or you can buy them.  These hold 3 inch pots. The second or lower tray does not have holes and holds the water. The seed starting soil should already be damp before you plant your seeds. You may want to dampen it before you put it into the pots. If you water your seed starting mix from the top you are likely to bury the seeds or wash them together, so add water to the bottom tray and it will work its way up to the seeds.  Dampen the seeds only—don’t drown!!!

          I put 1 to 2 seeds per pot.  Some people plant many seeds in a larger pot, cover it with Saran wrap to keep moisture in, and then separate the plants after they come up.  I sort my seeds by how long it takes to germinate and also by the number of days before it blooms.  This is on the seed envelope. This means I start some seeds like geraniums and prairie gentian as early as January.  Others like tomatoes not until March.

          The second set up is also under lights but the plants grow at a cooler temperature. Most young plants need to get away from that bottom heat. After germination and when the plants have 2 or 3 small leaves, then I pick up the whole tray and put it under another set of lights and start a new tray under the first set up! One of the secrets of good garden transplants is to not allow the young plants to get “soft” from too high a temperature.  This often happens if the temperature is above 72 to 75 degrees F. Most new plants grow best at about 55 to 65 degrees F. At that temperature they grow slower and have a good root system with a sturdy stem.

          Germinating soil usually doesn’t have much fertilizer, so soon after the tray is moved over it will need a weak fertilizer in the water in the bottom tray. A one-fourth solution of a water soluble fertilizer is plenty. If you fertilize too much, the plants will grow too fast and have a weak spindly stem.

          As for lights, there are special, expensive fluorescent bulbs you can buy (grow lights), but I use one warm white light (shop light) and one cool white light bulb in each fixture. I also reverse the tray every couple of days so the plants get the full light spectrum provided by the two different bulbs. My lights are on timers so the plants get 14 hours of light and 10 hours of dark. Also the fluorescent fixtures are on a chain so I can regulate the height as they grow. Keep the lights about 2 inches to no more than 4 inches above the top of the plants so they develop a strong, stocky stem and don’t get leggy.  

          One lecture I attended on plant propagation said, “If you are careful with your expenses, growing your own plants won’t cost much more than if you buy them already growing”. However, I do it every spring but mostly to start plants that I can’t find easily.

          For more information on starting plants from seeds contact your local County Extension Educator, or go on line to . In the top box scroll down to “Extension”. In the bottom box type in seeds or the name of the plant you want to start. There is a good NebGuide (G80-503-A) on “Vegetable Garden Seed Storage and Germination Requirements”. This talks about storing seed left over, storage life of seeds, ideal germination temperature, and days to germinate.

          Iowa State University Extension also has a good web site. Go to Type in “starting seeds”, or the name of the plant you want to start. The February 11, 2005 issue of HortNews had a good article on “Guide to Starting Vegetable Transplants” with a chart showing optimum germination temperature, number of days to germination, day growing temperature, and sowing to planting time in weeks.

          Both of these websites are a valuable resource and the avid gardener should bookmark them. In the search box you can type in the name of the plant, tree, shrub, disease, insect, flower, or vegetable you want information about, and a list of publications will appear. You can print them off or download this University based information for free.

Copyright Dec. 18, 2004