Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seed Starting: Indoors and Out

bottom right photo courtesy of Angela with

Last week we talked about choosing the type of garden that might be best for your situation. After you have determined what type of garden you intend to plant the next step is choosing the plant and seed varieties that will do best with your choice and whether to start seeds, buy transplants, or sowing seeds directly in the ground.

Transplants whether started at home or purchased from a retailer give you some benefits. First doing this can extend your growing season or at a minimum make harvest time sooner. The plants are older when they are planted into the ground, raised bed, or container. If you live where there is a longer growing season, starting seeds can make it possible to have two crops in a single season. Starting seeds yourself can save you a lot of money.

Starting Seeds Inside

When starting seeds inside you will need containers, growing medium, and a source of light. Depending on your set up seeds can be started three weeks or even earlier indoors. Soil or growing medium should be kept damp not wet and should be checked on daily.

Source of Light

In the northern hemisphere the source of light could be a south facing window or a grow light. With a south facing window the plants, once sprouted should be turned every day. The plants will grow toward the light, not turning them will make the plants unstable once they are moved outside. When using a grow light you can get as basic or as fancy as you want. The longer the plants stay indoors to more sophisticated the grow light needs to be. Below are some examples of different settings.

Seed Starting Containers

If you are container gardening this might not be a big deal. If you are gardening in raised beds or in the ground, using the wrong type of container can place unneeded stress on your young plants. There are lots of products out there for starting seeds. I personally like the containers that are made of all natural fibers that can be torn and planted right in the ground with the plant. You will need to choose the appropriate size container for what you are growing. These are one option and are the size container I like to use for squash, zuchinni, and things like that Plantation FS110 Seed Starter Pots (10 Pot, 5 Strips Per Pack, 50 Total).

Seed Starting Medium

Your seed starting medium should not be your garden soil. Most suggest that a sterile medium be used for seed starting. This reduces that chances of having harmful molds or bacteria attacking your young plants and gives them a jump on life. I like the peat pellets as well as organic starting medium. Most of these you can pick up at your local garden center or you can purchase them here. 

Seed Sowing

We live in agricultural zone 7b. That means that our average last frost date is around April 1st and our average first frost is the end of October. For spring planting I normally plant red potatoes, and other cool loving or cold tolerant crops the middle of February. I always direct sow these type plants.

Other plants that I always direct sow are things like corn, beans, peas, okra, carrots, and onions. Okra can be transplanted, but it takes several plants to harvest enough regularly to eat. I prefer direct sow for anything that requires several plants to provide a usable harvest.

Okra is a warm weather crop and should not be planted until all chance of frost has passed and the ground temperatures have reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime temperatures or ground temperatures should always be taken into consideration when planting any seed. Most seed packets have suggested planting dates on the back.

If you will be gardening in containers and you have room you can start all of your seeds indoors. After the weather has warmed up they can be moved outdoors in the containers in which they will continue to grow. 

Hardening off plants

All plants that are started indoors will have to be hardened off. At first I thought hardening off of plants was only to get the plants used to the temperature extremes. This is only part of the reason. Hardening off plants gives them the time to adjust to the intensity of the sunlight. Even if you have started your seeds in a sun room, the intensity of the sunlight is filtered at least a little by the glass. The process of hardening should take between several days and two weeks.

Steps to Harden off Plants

1. Short times outside. Plants should be in a sheltered location that is protected from wind, heavy rain, and direct sunlight. Leave in this location for 1 to 3 hours then take back inside. Each day gradually increase the amount of time the plants are outside.
2. Expose to direct sunlight. After about three days you can set your plants in direct sunlight. While growing inside, the light these plants experience is filtered by glass. Even regular glass takes a little of the intensity out of sunlight.
3. Slowly Extend time between watering.  While sprouting seeds you want the soil to always be moist (not wet). The plant will not have that luxury once it is outside. Never allow the plant to wilt. Last year my seedlings were a couple of weeks old and I got caught up in a project and forgot to water them. In just a day or two I lost some of my seedlings. 
4. Watch the Temperature. Even on a beautiful day your plants could be damaged if it is too cool. Bring warm weather veggies in when the temperature goes below 55 degrees Fahrenheit (this is my general rule, some plants would benefit from being brought in at warmer temps). Cold tolerant plants should be brought in when the temp drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 
5. Transplant. After all of the above steps and the temperatures are consistently above the minimum temperature for that particular plant they can be transplanted or moved outside for the season. 

Note of interest: All peppers are perennial as long as their climate needs are met. If you are growing peppers in containers and have the room to move them indoors during the winter they will continue to produce for years to come. 

Seed Selection

GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)  

As of the time of this post GMO seeds are not available to the backyard gardener for purchase, so don't worry about purchasing GMO. GMO and hybrid are not the same thing in any stretch of the definition. GMO are only available to commercial farmers. Even if they were available to the backyard gardener would you really want to spray Roundup all over your yard? 

I have my own thoughts on GMO, but I will reserve them for now.

Hybrid Seeds

A hybrid is the crossbreeding or cross pollination of two known species or varieties. For example the crossing a horse and a donkey produces a mule as an offspring. The same is true of plants. Crossing two genetically different, but similar plants or animals produces hybrid vigor. 

hybrid vigor noun
Increased vigor or other superior qualities arising from the crossbreeding of genetically different plants or animals. Also called heterosis.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

het•er•o•sis (ˌhɛt əˈroʊ sɪs)  noun
the increase in growth, size, yield, or other characters in hybrids over those of the parents.

[1910–15; < Late Greek hetérōsis an alteration. See hetero-, -osis]Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

If we wanted to create a new variety of tomato we might take a purple Cherokee and an heirloom grape tomato and cross pollinate. We might be trying to create a mid sized, very prolific new variety. A portion of the seeds would be planted and grown out to see what would actually be produced.  If the end result were desirable, we would continue with the cross and might even market the end result. 

The mule offspring is sterile. This is not true of plant crossings but close. If you were to save seeds from a hybrid variety and plant them, very few if any would produce a plant like the parent. Most will have undesirable characteristics. The hybrid vigor only works for one generation.

Heirloom or Open Pollinated Seeds

There is some confusion when it comes to heirloom and open pollinated seeds. I am going to try to clear that up. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom. Here is what I mean. Open pollinated plants are pollinated by wind, insects, or other naturally occurring ways. 

Many tomatoes and peppers have what is called a perfect flower. That means that each flower has both male and female parts. Squash do not have perfect flowers. Squash have male and female flowers, without the intervention of insects no squash would grow unless we hand pollinate each female bloom with the pollen from a male bloom. 

Heirloom seeds have a proven history. They are pollinated by natural methods, but in addition to that they have generations of someone growing them, saving the seeds and passing them on to someone else. If you have someone local who has grown and saved seed for several years these seeds can produce better than any even of the same variety because the seeds have adapted to your climate. 

Lots of seed companies have jumped on the heirloom band wagon. Burpee and other large companies offer a limited range of heirloom and open pollinated seeds. I personally like to buy seeds from a reputable small company. I really like White Harvest Seed Company, a family owned company that I have spoken to the owner and the tech guy. A small company means that if you have issues, you have someone you can contact that actually cares about making sure you are happy with your order. 

Direct Sow

Direct sow can occur once your soil reaches germination temperatures. These temperatures vary depending on type of plant. I normally will not plant okra until mid to late April. Beans I will plant as early as mid March and English Peas can be planted in January here in zone 7b. Times will change depending on which agricultural zone you are located. 

 plant hardiness zones

Soaking Seeds

Most seeds benefit from soaking before planting. Soaking of seeds puts moisture into the seed and speeds up the process of germination. Some will even soak seeds in hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is slightly acidic and it is thought that doing this helps to simulate what a seed would go through if it was eaten by an animal and passed through the digestive system whole. Some seeds do better this way, but I will be honest I do not like soaking in chemicals.

How to soak seeds? Everything except okra, I soak for at most 4 hours in warm water. Okra I run hot tap water, as hot as comes out of the faucet and let soak overnight. I did a test several years ago and the okra seeds that were soaked sprouted over a week sooner than seeds that were not soaked.

Once soaked it is time to plant. I hope all of your plants do well this year. If you need the reference be sure and check out Garden Design: What Should You Build and Compost The Low Down.

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