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Green sprouts growing out from soil in the morning light

Seed catalogs are filled with dreams that grow into reality: A perfectly straight and early stringless bush bean. A dahlia in the most vibrant color you can imagine. The same tomato that South Dakota settlers grew in 1845. 

Dreaming doesn’t do you much good, though, if you order a whole pile of seed packets without the slightest idea of how to grow them. Some seeds do well placed directly into the soil. But others need to be started indoors in order to maximize the growing season. For instance, peppers and tomatoes should be started by the end of March, and cool crop seeds including broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower by the end of April, says Scott Moon, owner of Sargent’s Gardens in Rochester. “The first couple years, there’s a bit of a learning curve,” Moon says.

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Young tomato plants and ripe tomatoes on weathered wood

To lessen the learning curve, we have a little guide for how to start your own seedlings if you’re ready to get your hands dirty.

Container type

Seeds will germinate in many conditions, but ideally, you want containers with good drainage or drain holes in the bottom, Moon says. Popular choices include:

  • Containers or kits with draining holes in the bottom, on a tray with a plastic cover
  • Egg cartons
  • Peat pots
  • Newspapers

Dirt style

The type of dirt you use matter a lot. Don’t use regular dirt dug up from your yard or garden to start seeds. Moon recommends a seed starting mixture that contains peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. This cuts down on weeds, gives proper drainage, and overall increases your chances of success. Potting soil may have too much fertilizer or be too heavy for seeds. Moon says to water the mixture and follow the directions on the seed packets before planting instructions. 

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plant seedling texture top view

Growing location

Seeds will do best in a location that is bright and warm. Once your seeds are settled in their containers, you’ll need an artificial light source (warming lights) and a heating mat for underneath your containers to encourage growth. 

You’ll also need a dome or cover (plastic would work) for your container(s). Timing plays a role in success with covering. Keep seeds covered until you see sprouts. As soon as germination occurs, pull that dome or cover off. This time of germination is Moon’s favorite part – there’s something magical about it that never gets old. “It’s that whole experiencing Mother Nature and working with the dust,” he says.

Make sure your seedlings stay watered, and watch them grow. If they start leaning toward the light source, rotate the containers around or move the light to another spot.

Hardening off and how to do it

Hardening off means preparing plants to live outside. If you put your seedlings in the ground without hardening off, they are at risk of shock, which may slow future growth and potentially stunt your plant. In Minnesota, spring brings a variety of temperatures. Seedlings are used to a protected, controlled environment. To harden off your young plants, introduce them to the outdoors for a few hours each day, adding time until they are spending 7 or 8 hours a day outside. At first, they may need shelter. However, after about a week, they should be strong enough to stay outside. Keep an eye on the weather, though! Strong winds have been known to topple young plants, or a sudden rainstorm could drown them.

Once your plants are hardened off, it’s time to plant. Then sit back and watch your garden grow.

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