Ready to start seeds, but not sure of the best way to go about it? This complete guide shares seed germination methods and their benefits so you can choose the best method for your garden.
I don’t know about you, but the recent winter weather has had me dreaming of warmer weather and garden harvests! And it’s hard to believe that it is almost time to start seeds and getting back out to the soil! Seed starting is something that many gardeners just intuitively know they want to do. We decide we want to start a garden; we buy seeds and soil and just get started! In some cases, this works, but in other cases failures with these initial seed starts can discourage us from further growing!
In this episode I want to guide you through my decision-making process and steps for starting seeds so that my baby seedlings grow into productive mature plants!
So this episode is a real time episode, meaning as I am sharing with you the content I am also doing the task! It’s the middle of January here and I am about 11 weeks from my estimated last frost date, and probably 13 weeks from when we’re typically in the clear with the cool weather in early spring to start transplanting young plants!
So that means I can start looking at starting my cool weather crops in the next couple of weeks! Which is exciting, but I am also reminded of the season I started my garden and how overwhelming germinating vegetable seeds felt! I want to help you avoid that feeling so this episode will be complete with all the information I would have loved to know before starting my own process.
First things first, let’s talk about why seed starting is important and beneficial. Starting your own seeds allows you to have more control over what varieties of plants you grow, rather than being limited to what is available at your local garden center. It also allows for a longer growing season
What is seed germination?
First things first, let’s talk about what seed starting is and why seed starting is important. Seed starting is the process of growing plants from seeds rather than purchasing mature plants from a nursery or garden center. It involves planting the seeds in a controlled environment, such as indoors or in a greenhouse, until they are ready to be transplanted into your garden.
Starting your own seeds has many benefits! It allows you to have more control over what varieties of plants you grow, rather than being limited to what is available at your local garden center. It also allows for a jump start and a longer growing season as you are transplanting more mature plants in the ground vs starting from seed outdoors after your frost date.
Additionally indoor seed starting can save you money! Especially if you are growing a significant amount of each crop! Transplants from the big box stores are expensive and prices are rising! Starting your seeds helps you save money and potentially gain healthier plants in the long run.
Seed Starting Supplies
Seed Starting doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor! In fact you can begin starting with just a bag of seed starting mix (or cococoir) and containers you have around your house in a sunny window! I am a huge proponent of growing where you are and using what you have! Even still there are a few things that can make seed starting more convenient! Here are some essentials!
- Seed Packets
- Seed Starting mix or growing medium (you can use potting soil, but seeds do not require any nutrients prior to germination)
- Seedling Container – You can find great seed starting trays at any big box store. I like the Burpee SuperSeed silicon trays
- Grow light
- Heating Mat
- Large Container for bottom watering
- Table fan to help with hardening off plants
- Spray bottle/watering can
Aside from the soil and the grow light, all of the items are optional or can be substituted for things around your home.
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Seed Germination Methods
Now let’s talk about methods of starting seeds. There are 5 basic ways to start seeds. They are the traditional method using seed trays, winter sowing which I will be discussing next week, soil blocking which has been popularized in the last few years, the wet paper towel method and my personal favorite hydroponics.
Now, I want to spend a little time going through each method in more detail.
Traditional Seed Germination Method
This is the method most of us start out with. It’s really simple and only requires seed starting mix, seedling trays and grow lights. (while the grow lights are optional, they increase success 10 fold). With this method you will complete the following steps.
- Choose and prepare your container. If you are using seed trays there’s no preparation needed. If you are using a recycled container, make sure that you have proper drainage. You can use a razor blade to poke holes in the bottom of your container
- Moisten your soil. You want the moist soil to clump together when held in your fist, but you don’t want to be able to squeeze water out of it.
- Fill your container
- Place your seeds (2-3 cell in a seed starting tray and if you are using a container you can overseed slightly)
- Place under a grow light and wait (watering as needed by spraying the top of the soil with a spray bottle and bottom watering)
Once germination occurs you can thin your seeds and pot-up as needed before transplanting outside.
The next method of seed starting we will discuss is soil blocking. Soil Blocking involves creating soil blocks that you use instead of containers to start your seeds. Now this is a method that I thought I was going to dive right into, but it ended up being more technique specific than I originally thought. It also does require a little investment to purchase the soil-block maker.
So my experience with it is limited, but there are some pretty intriguing benefits including:
- Not having to use containers
- The roots air prune (STOP GROWING) when they hit the edge of the block which generally leads to a healthier transplant.
- You can stack them tighter under a grow light
I may try my hand at Soil-blocking again, because the idea of air-pruning does seem like a benefit I would like to capitalize on! If you have experience with it, I would Love to hear about it!
This next method does require an investment EXPECIALLY if you do not already have a hydroponic growing system, but it is my absolute favorite! Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in water, and once I began using my Aerogarden’s to start my plants I was sold.
Now I cannot speak to other hydroponic systems, so I will just speak about the Aerogarden. They have a way to convert all of the hydroponic systems into a seed starting system. Basically, you purchase kit that increases the amount of growing cones you can use. Mine goes from a 6 cell unit to a 23-cell unit.
Once you have this kit, you can start nearly any seed and then transplant into soil once you have 1 or two sets of true leaves.
Last year I ran a little experiment where I started peppers in the traditional seed tray method and the Aerogarden. The Aerogarden peppers germinated in 2 weeks where the traditional method tooth nearly 1.5 months (or never germinated at all).
Now, I do understand that this method has a higher initial cost, and maintenance costs, however, I use rockwool cubes instead of the growing cones and the overall cost is so much lower!
The last method that I will discuss is one I am working on for the first time this year, and that is the Winter Sowing method. Winter Sowing is a method where you create mini greenhouses with seeds in them, and then let mother nature drive germination. When the soil gets warm enough for germination, the seeds germinate.
One of the benefits that I am most excited about for this method is the fact that as someone who is time and space limited, the idea of a hands off approach to seed starting is exciting! Additionally, seeds that typically need cold stratification can benefit from natural temperature changes to break dormancy.
This method has the added benefit of better acclimation due to the fact that plants are already in the elements. Now, while my research says you can winter sow anything, here is a list of plants that I plan on Winter Sowing
- Swiss Chard
- Bachelors Buttons
Winter Sowing might be the perfect solution for someone who is newer to gardening and looking for a low cost method of starting seeds.
Paper Towel Method
This is probably the easiest way to germinate your seeds and begin starting seeds! Here’s what you’ll need:
- plastic bag or ziploc bag
- damp paper towel
In order to do this method, simply place your seeds on a paper towel (both tiny seeds and large seeds excel with this method). Fold the paper towel up and place it in a ziploc bag. This put it in a dark drawer and wait!
Depending on the type of seeds used you could see tiny sprouts in as little as a day or two!
Seed Starting Tips
So how do you achieve the best results to achieve improved germination of seeds and optimal plant growth? Here are a few tips to keep in mind!
1. Remember all seeds germinate but older seeds may have reduced germination rates. If you are using old seeds, consider doing a simple germination test using the baggie method to determine the germination rate for your seeds as well as the number of seeds to germinate based on your garden plan. You will want to try to germinate more when your rate is lower.
2. The soil temperature plays an important role in creating the right conditions and improving the germination rate for your seeds. Using heating mats can help you better control the temperature.
3. Once your germinated seeds get their first set of true leaves they will need fertilization, using a diluted balanced fertilizer can help!
4. Good airflow is beneficial both in decreasing the chance of damping off and decreasing soil surface moisture levels which can decrease the instances of pest or fungal issues.
When to Start Seeds
Now, you’ve chosen a method, when should you start! If you are using winter sowing, you can start nearly anytime in the late fall (I’m talking mid-December) and throughout the winter.
If you are using one of the other methods you’ll want to consider your Estimated last frost date. This will vary by crop and even by variety! Generally Speaking though here are some guidelines for your seed starting timeline.
- Alliums will be the first thing you will want to start in early January if possible. Perenial and cool weather herbs will be next
- You can start succession starting things like Lettuce and Arugula and kale at about 10 weeks before your last frost date.
- The next set of vegetables you’ll start are your Cole Crops like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. And this is going to be 8-10 weeks before your frost date.
- Pepper seeds and tomato seeds come next at about 6 weeks before your last frost date. Peppers will need a heat mat in order for the soil to reach the optimal temperature for higher germination
- Finally you’ll start any flowers and annual herbs like basil at 4 weeks before your estimated last frost date.
As always, I cannot stress this enough, please read the back of each individual seed packet because it will tell you exactly when to start! And if you are not sure when your last frost date is, we did a complete guide in Ep. 2. I will link that in the show notes!!
Okay ya’ll this has been a long episode and I promised myself when I started this podcast that I would keep the information bite-sized, so we’re going to have to do a part 2! In that episode I’ll talk about some of the common problems we see when seed starting as well as some steps that we can not skip when choosing to start our own seeds.
I hope this episode has shed some light on the ways of seed starting and given you some encouragement to give seed starting a try!
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