Do you struggle to raise seeds successfully? Are you a beginner gardener? Then follow this tutorial on how to be a successful plant ‘parent’. Avoid the most common mistakes when starting seeds.
As a parent, there’s no greater joy than sharing the journey of nurturing a baby from infancy into a healthy young adult. But I confess – I’ve been a bad ‘parent’ many times … Before I learned how to raise my plant ‘babies’ successfully, they starved, drowned, died of thirst or neglect, too much love – or too little! If this sounds like you, then read on for my best tips.
As a gardener, I’m practicing ‘parenting’ skills almost daily raising plant ‘babies’. And boy do I have a BIG family! Babies are being ‘born’ everywhere. In seed raisers, pots and garden beds. Some new additions are planned. Others are not, but they’re all welcomed in my garden.
Over the years I’ve successfully raised thousands of seeds into healthy plants. Like kids, it’s hard to keep an eye on these youngsters. Especially when they insist on entering the world unplanned in some spots in the garden! Being a plant ‘parent’, it’s much easier to raise these babies when you can control where they grow. Then you can keep a close eye on them and care for their needs.
“Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle … a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl. And the anticipation nurtures our dream.” – Barbara Winkler
Watch this quick clip on the miracle of a seed germinating.
Quick Tips for Starting Seeds Successfully
You have three options for sowing seeds:
- In a seed raiser for transplanting later when seedlings are strong enough.
- In a suitable container like a punnet for microgreens or other edibles in a larger planter e.g. poly box.
- Direct sow in a garden bed where you want them to grow permanently.
This video shows you two different methods of sowing seeds – in the ground and into seed trays.
Materials for Starting Seeds
- Viable seeds of your choice . I recommend organic seeds for growing food so you have total control from seed to plate. See Saving and Sourcing Open-Pollinated Seeds for tips and suppliers.
- Clean, hygienic, sterile container with suitable drainage. There are plenty of options for a ‘nursery’. You can buy new. e.g. shallow seed raising flats; cell growing trays; biodegradable jiffy pots; a mini propagator and tubes; or make your own.
TIP: Use HOT soapy water to sterilise your container. Especially if reusing pots or seed trays. This is so no soil borne diseases or plant pathogens contaminate your new seeds.
- Growing media or soil-less seed raising mix. NOT commercial potting mix. It can be too coarse for little delicate roots to push through and often contains harsh fertilisers. I suggest you make your own seed raising mix like I do. I share five organic recipes in my How to Make Potting Mix at Home Guide.
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- Cover (to create a humid environment). e.g. plastic bag, bottle, mini greenhouse etc.
- Spray bottle or tray with water. No moisture = no germination.
- Light. Preferably natural light or a fluorescent light if raising seeds indoors. Some seeds do need to germinate in darkness, so this is a general rule that can be broken. Check your seed packet for specific instructions!
- Label or plant marker. All babies need names. Many plant families look very alike when young. I once transplanted out what I thought were cucumber seedlings into a raised bed. I went on holidays and returned to find they were zucchinis! They had taken up way too much space because I hadn’t labelled them.
Starting Seeds at the Right Time
If you’re planning an ‘impending birth’, consider timing. Food crops germinate at specific times of the year depending on your climate zone. Plant in the right season. Ideally, to maximise success, use a moon calendar for optimum timing.
TIP: “If you have a short growing season, start early. Select seed varieties that grow quickly! Then you need to prepare a space that’s clean, warm and light. With the ‘baby’s’ needs in mind. You can start seeds indoors, in a greenhouse or suitable protected area.”
Like us, Seeds have Basic Needs!
- Air (oxygen in the soil).
- Moisture (to soften the coat of the seed and form roots).
- Warmth (some seeds won’t grow if the soil is too hot or cold).
Seed Raising Mix
Use a good quality mix for starting seeds. It should be:
- have good drainage
- moisture holding capacity
- sterile and free from pathogens (soil borne diseases).
You can buy a commercial mix or make your own seed raising mix. Garden soil is NOT recommended. It compacts easily and may harbour diseases.
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7 Basic Steps to Starting Seeds
1. Always check your seed packet for specific directions. e.g. To sow direct or into a seed raiser first. The most suitable season and depth to sow. Soil temperature and spacing. Whether the seed needs light, darkness or pre-soaking.
2. Spread your seed raising mix firmly into your container. Tap down to remove air pockets.
3. Make sure your seeds have good contact with the soil. They need moisture to germinate. Small seeds or those that need light can just lie on top of the seed raising mix. As a general rule for larger seeds, sieve extra seed raising mix evenly over the seed to a depth of twice the seed diameter and moisten well.
4. Put your seed container in a protected warm position. e.g. on top of a hot water heater or use a heat mat underneath to increase the soil temperature. Keep your seeds in a humid environment until they germinate. You can add a cloche or close the lid on your mini greenhouse. Alternatively cover with a plastic bag or film. (Remove this once the seeds have sprouted).
5. Make sure there’s consistent moisture once the seeds are in their ‘bed’. Too dry = no germination. Too wet = seed can rot/die. Just right = you’ll be the proud parent of new babies! Check daily. Use a spray bottle to finely mist water over the seeds. Or add your container/tray to a shallow water bath with warm water. This allows moisture to wick up into the seed raising mix without disturbing your seeds. Remove your container when the mix feels moist. TIP: A moisture meter is a very helpful tool.
6. Label your seeds and be patient. Not all babies are born on time! Check the seed packet for a guideline to the number of days to germination so you have a ‘due date’.
7. Feed your babies! Once the seed baby is ‘born’, it will quickly grow its first 2 true leaves. At this point your plant baby will have used up all the nutrients inside the seed. It will be totally reliant on YOU for food to grow. A weekly liquid feed is ideal to get your little one thriving. Try a weak solution of seaweed (kelp) or worm ‘juice’ (liquid from a worm farm).
Successful Seedlings – Out in The Big Wide World…
If you’ve started seeds indoors, you will need to ‘harden them off’ for a week or two before transplanting outdoors. This helps them acclimatize. Think of it like this. You are giving your seedlings short little ‘day trips’ (for a few hours). This helps expose them to sheltered conditions to toughen them up a bit without them getting stressed!
From then on, your youngsters are very vulnerable until they grow strong enough to go out into the big wide world and fend for themselves. There are plenty of things that can go wrong. They can starve. Get too hot or cold. Drown or feel thirsty. Get gobbled by hungry insects or animals looking for a free feast. Plus a host of other hazards! So put your ‘protective parent hat’ on until they’re able to safely ‘move house’.
If you have sowed edible seeds directly in the garden, thin them out. Keep only the strongest plants. Eat the rest as microgreens, packed with enzymes and flavour.
Just like us, our plant babies need love and attention. If they get a healthy start early in life, they generally grow into healthy productive plants that reward us for a job well done. So, get sowing!
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