If you are a beginner gardener, it can seem daunting to start seedlings, to know when to plant your chosen seeds, how to plant them, how much to water, and what went wrong if your seedlings start to whither and die no matter what you do!
If you have any of these questions then this post is for you!
When to plant what?
I have another post, how to start a vegetable garden for beginners which has a chart for the most popular veggies you can sow in each season.
once you have chosen what you want to grow you should start your seedlings at least four to six weeks before you are going to plant into your garden
To be ready to start seedlings you need to have- or be creating the following.
A place to plant you ready to transplant seedlings that is made up of soil with decent drainage, good sun exposure, (5-7 hours/day) and easy watering.
knowledge of your climate zone. This is a factor, as not everyone has long winters, or scorching summers, knowing how to predict your weather, not overly so, but enough to gauge when will be warm enough or cool enough for you summer or winter crop to go in the ground.
Plants like celery, broccoli, beets, cabbage, cauliflower and kale, turnips and chard like to be transplanted into the ground before the second to last frost, so having a rough idea, or finding an almanac online or at your local library of your weather patterns is key to getting a good crop.
What you need to start seedlings
- Seedling mix or compost or mix of both.
- Watering can
- Spray bottle
- A place to keep seedlings indoors.
The soil you use needs to be nutritious, with good draining but also the ability to retain moisture.
Seedling mix or compost are good choices. I like to use bought compost, it’s easier and it drains well, and if you make your own compost like me, then you need to watch out for hot compost, which is compost that is still fermenting, fermenting compost can reach temperatures of 70 degrees celsius! (160 f)
If you make smaller amounts (like me) and just dig into small holes (Compost pockets) or straight into your garden then just be sure that you have soil and not still half way through the fermenting process.
If it hasn’t finished fermenting, no mater how small the amount, it will still be hot, way too hot for seedlings (or any plant)
So choose compost that is at least 3-4 months old, with good drainage, you can mix it with seedling mix or anything from your garden to help with this, or you can add vermiculite(you should still add this to bought mix), which helps to aerate soil while simultaneously retaining water and nutrients, it’s cheap and you can get it from your local Bunnings here in Australia or any nursery.
You can buy them, or reuse household goods.
I use a bit of both.
Use homemade containers, things like egg cartons, toilet roll holders, yogurt tubs, and berry punnets. (take note of the shallowness of your containers, if it’s very shallow your seedlings will need to be transplanted when they outgrow the container into a bigger container)
DON’T FORGET TO LABEL YOUR SEEDLINGS! you can cut up yogurt tubs , or use wooden paddle pop sticks, whatever you can find that will stay in the soil on the side of the tubs and is water proof. Write the name of the plant and it’s germination time.
You can use a watering can when you seedlings are big enough to handle the water flow but when they are very young and spindly, you need to use a spray bottle.
Until they germinate and sprout, they need to be damp rather than wet, so don’t saturate the soil everyday until you see a sprout, just keep the soil damp.
When they sprout you can water gently, wetting well down into the soil to encourage deep root growth.
Once the seedlings are growing well, a good technique to use is to dip the pot into a tray of water rather than watering from above. The water should not come above half way up the pot and after a short time, it can be removed, drained well and returned to its place. One of the reasons this method works so well is that you develop a feel for how heavy the pot should be when it has absorbed enough water and can then water more or less the next time.
PLANTING YOUR SEEDS.
The process of planting is easy.
- Fill your containers with damp soil-do not compact it, just leave it loose.
- write labels and place on in your containers where you intend to plant that seed.
- plant the seeds in rows or in individual pockets-plant two seeds together to thin later. (not too deep!) take note of how to deep to plant each seed.
- gently cover wth a thin layer of soil.
- spray with a spray bottle.
- place in warm place with light to allow for germination.
- start with healthy soil
- plant two of each seed to thin later
- keep the soil moist!
- place in the sunlight.
GERMINATION 101 FOR THE BEGINNER GARDENER
It’s not hard but knowing the five steps of germination is a good way to understand the process and what your seeds need to germinate.
The first step in the seed germination is imbibition i.e. absorption of water by the dry seed. this is crucial, your seeds don’t germinate in the packet because they stay dry, if you were to wet them, they would start the process, the water dissolves an enzyme on the skin of the seed.
Once your seed is no longer dormant, it grows a root to access water underground, this will happen before you see a sprout emerge from the soil.
Once the seed is wet, and resumes metabolic activity, Respiration starts, your seed needs oxygen, which is why it is important to not pack down your soil after planting and not to plant your seeds too deep.
The third step is light, not all seeds need light. But unless you want to research and check what seeds do and don’t you should just assume they need some kinds of light to germinate.
The seed grows a shoot toward the sun, A skinny seedling, leaning over toward the light is a sign that your seedling is not getting enough sunlight. From the moment the shoot breaks though the soil, it’s looking for sunlight, be sure to give then lots of overhead sunlight, to prevent them growing too fast in search of it, turning them into weak seedlings.
Photomorphogenesis. This is your seedling after the sprout stage, growing leaves and using light as a guide for growth patterns. This is not photosynthesis, which uses light as a source of energy.
On the seed packet will be the days till germination is complete, which means you will see a sprout appear. You can write this down on your seed labels that you plant with, most plants germinate within 7 days but some take as long as 14, 16 to 21.
It is good to write it down so you can know right away if your seeds have failed.
NOTE. I always give it another week before I start another batch of seeds if one of my crops didn’t germinate, the days it takes to germinate on the seed packet are under perfect conditions, such as moistness and soil temperature, so your seeds may just take a little longer.
The aim of thinning is to leave a single healthy seedling in each pot.
To maximise the chance of a good crop, you want to be sure you have only the strongest seedlings.
When to thin your seedlings
You should thin your seedlings when they have two true leaves.
when your seedling first appears, it will grow two or more small leaves(cotyledons). This is from the process of photomorphogenesis, which is like an autopilot of signals for the seedling that is generated from sunlight, all seedlings sprout with this code programmed into them.
These first set of leaves however are not true leaves, and so will fall off and be replaced by larger stronger leaves, when the seedling begins photosynthesis. (begins using sunlight as energy)
So be sure to not thin your little seedlings until they have grown the second set of leaves, and when they have two leaves and are around 8-10 cm tall you can select the weakest seedling and gently pluck it away from the stronger.
Hardening off your seedlings
Hardening off is the process of gently introducing your seedlings into the outside world, a few hours at a time.
5-7 days before you are ready to transplant, (Just after thinning) you should take your seedlings outside during the nicest part of the day for a few hours and then bring them back in. Do this everyday extending the time by an hour each day.
The general rule of thumb is that when you seedlings have three to four true leaves you can transplant them to your garden.
If you have started your seedlings but are anxious about transplanting outside, (a cold snap in late spring could kill your seedings or a hot spell can whither winter seedlings) you can transplant into larger pots.
If you keep your seedlings in too small a pot it will inhibit growth.
I don’t like to transplant to bigger pots so I always start my seedlings when I know I can transplant them right on the garden, which means I start a little later in the season.
To transplant, take note of your plants and what they will grow into, refer to your seed packets to know how far apart to plant, and how much sun your plants require.
Companion planting when transplanting your vegetable seedlings
Remember to group plants together with companion planting.
Plan to have your taller plants in the north side of your garden, so they don’t overshadow your other crops.
Plant deep rooted plants together for ease of watering.
- Winter squash.
- Seeds don’t come up.
90% of your seeds should germinate, but once they have been stored for 6 months the rate drops considerably. take note of the use by date on your seedlings and how long you have stored them for. your soil may have dried out before your seed could dissolve its casing and begin the process of photomorphogenesis.
solution– You can soak your seeds in water for 30 minutes before planting to help combat this possibility. but otherwise be sure to keep your soil damp by spraying with a spay bottle twice per day.
2. Seed coat stuck.
If your seedling has sprouted, but you see the seed coat stuck on the delicate leaves, this is the seed coat stuck and happens when you didn’t plant your seedlings deep enough for the seed coat to come free of the sprout before it breaks free of soil. This can also occur when the soil is too dry.
Solution – spray the casing with a little water, and when it is soft, gently ease it from the sprout.
3. All seedlings dying suddenly
This can be caused by a fungal disease called damping-off, which attacks the stems at the surface of the soil.
solution- You can’t cure it, but you can stop it from happening by sprinkling sphagnum peat moss to absorb moisture on the soil after planting.
4. long spindly stems.
If you don’t provide enough light as soon as the seedlings start to grow, you will have long, skinny, weak stems that wont stand up to transplanting.
solution- you can cure this by providing more light and uprooting the spindly plant and replanting it deeper in the soil so that half of the stem in now buried in the soil.
5. Droopy seedlings.
Too much water. It causes the roots to drown and not be able to absorb oxygen.
Solution- Don’t over saturate when watering and don’t start seeds in potting mix
6. curled crispy leaves.
A few hours without water is enough to hinder a seedlings growth, an entire day is enough to have the leaves curl up and go brown and crispy at the edges.
Solution– To help increase the time between watering mix your soil with vermiculite to increase water retention and be sure to water everyday, the best time to water in the morning.
7. Yellow or brown leaves
Warm temperatures (21 to 25 degrees C) are ideal for seed germination, but tender seedlings can overheat from high-intensity lighting, lack of ventilation, or other reasons, causing the leaves to burn at the edges.
Solution– Keep your indoor garden around 65 degrees F while the seedlings are getting established. Leave a fan blowing gently around the seedlings to bring in fresh air and prevent stagnant air from heating up.
8. pale or yellow streaked leaves, and stalled growth.
a seed has all the food it needs during the first growth, but once it drops it’s first leaves and grows it’s true leaves your in charge of feeding it. pale or yellow streaked leaves, means you seedings is lacking nitrogen a critical element.
Solution – have on hand a nitrogen rich fertilizer (once with seaweed is really good) to spray your seedlings with once per week.
9. purple or reddish leaves and stalled growth
phosphorus is an essential element, and if you don’t have enough, you can have stunted growth and redish or purple veins in the leaves of your seedlings.
solution- Have on hand a phosphorus rich fertilizer, note they come in two types, soil or hydropnics, so choose which one you need as they have different pH levels. (you can also use burned cucumber skins! )
10. Black mould or yellow spots or both, on your first set of leaves
White flies are pests in most gardens.
The white flies suck out sap from leaves, if they suck out too much for them to digest, they excrete the extra sap as sticky honeydew on the leaves, and that honeydew promotes the the growth of sooty black mould.
solution –the safest way to get rod of white fly for very young seedlings, or at least decrease the numbers is to use sticky traps around the garden, when your seedlings are more established you can use a soap spray or neem oil on the underside of the leaves. spray early in the mornings or in the evenings when it’s cool, to prevent blocking photosynthesis.
these are the most common probems, but hopefully if you are diligent and keep you soil moist when your seeds are germinating, water thoroughly when they are growing there first and second leaves and transplant into healthy soil with lots of sun, you should expect good healthy crops!
the simple mamma
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