Tips for growing plants from seed
by Nan Sterman
The weather is still cool here in California, but my mind is on hot peppers and juicy tomatoes. February is when gardeners, from Sacramento to San Diego, decide what vegetables to grow.
We could wait to buy seedlings in the nursery, but the varieties will be limited. To grow the plants of our dreams, we start with seeds, especially for tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, corn, melon and squash.
"Starting plants from seed is easy, satisfying and fun," says Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden Seeds of Felton, Calif., one of the best-known seed merchants in the country.
"Throughout California, growing plants directly from seed is one of the simplest and most productive ways to have a kitchen garden of tasty veggies or flower garden of lovely bouquets," says Shepherd, who specializes in heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers.
This is the perfect month to order seeds and get started. Seeds can be purchased at garden centers or through online or mail-order catalogs. Seed packets offer the best advice on when to sow, how deep, light exposure, when to transplant and other tips. Here are some basics to get you started:
Gather your garden planting supplies
- Buy the best and highest quality seed. Read the envelope for the best planting instructions for that particular seed.
- A seed starting mix, which drains better and is sterile to reduce disease.
- Used nursery six-packs, cottage cheese or yogurt containers or even to-go containers to sprout the seeds. Wash, then soak in a 10 percent bleach solution for 20 to 30 minutes. Poke drainage holes in the bottom of the containers as needed.
- New Popsicle sticks to label each container. Write in pencil; it survives wet and sun the best!
- Perlite, construction sand or chicken grit. Chicken grit is finely milled granite. Avoid sandbox sand and oyster shells.
- A plastic mixing tub that's been washed and sterilized.
- Optional supplies: chopsticks, spray bottle, gloves, seed starting heat mat, thin plastic sheeting.
Follow these planting steps
- Write the type of plant, variety and starting date on Popsicle stick and set it in pot before you plant!
- Dampen the seed starting mix in the mixing tub.
- Fill containers to within one-fourth inch of the rim with dampened mix. Press down firmly.
- Use a pencil or chopstick to poke holes in the seed starting mix in the pots. Place a seed in each hole.
- Top each container with a thin layer of perlite, sand or chicken grit to prevent "damping off," a fungus disease that kills seedlings.
- Rinse the plastic tub and fill with a few inches of water. Gently place the containers in the water to wick it up to the soil surface.
- Remove pots and allow them to drain.
- Place pots in a sheltered location with bright, indirect light and good air circulation.
- Once seedlings have a few sets of leaves, thin to one per container. Use small scissors to cut (don't pull) off the unwanted stems at the surface of the soil.
- Move seedlings to a bright location so they don't grow weak and leggy.
If you choose, you can tent containers loosely with thin plastic to keep the starting mix moist. Use chopsticks as tent posts. Once seeds sprout, remove the plastic.
Also remember that if you start seeds when the air is still cool, consider using a waterproof, seed-starting heat mat. Don't use a heating pad or a waterbed heater. As soon as seeds sprout, move from the heat to a bright, sunny area.
Nan Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She is a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her garden.