Starting seeds indoors at the Wicked Good Farm in Whitefish Montana.
March is when we start seeds indoors at the Wicked Good Farm. My Grandparents, back in Vermont, always started their tomatoes and peppers on March 17 and it has become a family tradition. I like to think there was some magical reason that they choose St.Patrick’s day as the day to start what would grow into their bounty for the year. Perhaps it was the luck of the Irish or a blessing from St. Patrick. Then the more practical side of me thinks they choose March 17 because it was easy to remember year to year and it was the correct number of days prior to transplanting their crops outside. Either way, it has become family tradition and every St. Patricks day I plant some tomatoes and peppers in remembrance of my beloved Grandparents.
Here I am going to provide the basics of starting seeds indoors, remember to keep it simple silly.
First why start seeds indoors? Well, here in northwestern Montana and many of the northern states, the summer or more importantly the frost free period is not long enough for plants to mature. Frost free refers to the time span from the last spring frost to the first fall frost. Here in northwestern Montana our last spring frost occurs sometime between the last week of May through the first week in June. If you are a record keeper, than the last spring frost at your site is a good piece of information to keep in your garden journal. The average number of frost free days here in Whitefish Montana is approximately 116 days.
In order to over come this short fall in growing days, we need to start certain crops indoors. The first crops we start indoors are those that either take a long time to germinate or require a longer growing season than we have. For example parsley, rosemary and stevia take almost two weeks to germinate where tomatoes can germinate in 5 days yet needs about 100 days till harvest. Here again keeping record of what seeds were started when and how that indoor seeding date worked is important. I like to organize my seed packets according to when I will start them indoors. This way when the day or week comes all I have to do is grab the group of packets for that week and get seeding.
There are a few necessary items for indoor seed starting; containers and labels, potting soil, light and a possibly a supplemental heat sources.
Containers, there are many sources the important thing again is to keep it simple and use what works for you. The key feature about the container used is that it is shallow, about 2 to 3 inches deep and has drain holes. There are numerous types of seed starting trays and systems available for purchase. For those who like to re-purposing recyclables things like egg cartons, cut down milk containers, or plastic lettuce containers all can work well, just put a few drain holes in the bottom. For labels the options are endless, just be sure that the containers are labeled.
A growing medium is necessary and there are many products available. There are soil-less seed starting mixes and potting soils. The soil-less mixes are made up of ingredients such as peat moss, perlite, coconut coir fiber and vermiculite. They tend to be lighter than potting soils and would not contain soil born pathogens. Potting soils typically contain soil, compost or composted manure, vermiculite, perlite, peat moss and possibly fertilizer. Potting soils tend to be more coarsely textured than soil-less starting mixes. Here at the Wicked Good Farm we use a local source of organic potting soil, PEACO (38161 US Highway 93, Big Arm, MT 59910, phone: 406-849-5729), for our seed starting medium.
Light is vital for plants and sufficient light must be supplied to the new seedlings. Again, there are many systems and ways of providing light to your new seedlings. Depending on the quantity of seedlings a sunny south facing window may be adequate or an overhead grow light might be necessary. Take caution if depending solely on a sunny window. The seedlings will tend to bend towards the window and it will be important to rotate the containers to keep the seedling straight. This also will result in leggy spindly seedlings. But if this is what available then it will work. If growing seedlings under lights it is best to use fluorescent bulb rather than incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs produce too much heat and can burn the seedlings. We like to use a combination of cool and warm fluorescents, or full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs. The use of grow lights allows seedlings to grow straight and keeps them from getting leggy. The key here is to keep the grow lights CLOSE to the top leaves, within an inch, otherwise the seedlings will become leggy. Most plants require 12 to 14 hours of light daily. We like to use an outlet timer to control when the lights turn on and off.
Supplemental heat maybe necessary depending on where the seedlings will be grown. Ideally, the soil temperature should be maintained near 75 degrees F. Our growing area is the garage, which is sparsely heated, and therefore we use heat mats to provide consistent supplemental heat to our germinating seeds and seedlings. Again, there are many resources available for heat mats, we like to purchase ours from one of our local organic supply stores, The Box of Rain. Supplemental heat, will provide quicker, more even and a higher percent of germination of seeds.
Now that we have gone over the necessary items let discuss the how to.
1. Create a comfortable workspace, you don’t want to be bending over. A standing or sitting position is best. The space will get a little messy, just an FYI
2. Put the potting soil/ medium in to a container (I use our wheel barrow or a plastic muck bucket) add enough warm water to dampen the soil. Stir the soil and add more water as necessary. It will take some stirring and mixing to incorporate the water into the soil. Avoid making mud!
3. Fill the containers with soil. Gently smooth off the top and lightly pat the soil down. The objective is to make a nice firm seed bed.
4. On the workbench, make depressions in the soil surface for the seeds. Most seed packets come with instructions on how deep to seed and how far apart to seed. Follow the recommendations. I usually seed into a “mother” flat, it is similar in size to a disposable brownie baking pan, but made of plastic with drain holes. Once I have my firm seed bed I make furrows across the tray approximately every one and half to two inches. This creates 10 -12 rows in my tray. Then I sprinkle my seeds in the rows/furrows.
5. Cover up the seeds with a little of the potting mix and gently pat the tray. Again, this ensures good seed to soil contact (key for germination).
6. Gently water the top of the tray.
7. Cover the tray with either the supplied plastic top or cling wrap from the kitchen.
8. Label the tray. Masking tape on the outside of the tray works well. Later when the plants are up, a popsicle stick can be inserted next to the row.
9. Place the finished seed tray in a warm area. Check on the tray daily and when the seedling have appeared you will want to remove the cling wrap if using it.
10. Once, the cling wrap has been removed you will have to monitor the tray for soil moisture. Especially if using a heat mat. Water gently, you don’t want to blast the young seedlings out of the tray.
11. Light! Once the seedlings have emerged from the soil they will need light. As discussed above, a very sunny window will work, but grow lights will produce a much stronger plant. Keep the grow lights very close to the plants (closer than your comfortable with). Mine are no more than one inch above the plants.
Happy seeding and the stay tuned for tips on transplanting.