In this third and final part of our Basic Seed Starting for Beginners series, I will teach you how to decide how much to plant, how to plant your seeds, and how to care for your seeds until transplanting. Then I will help you troubleshoot any issues that may arise during your seed starting journey.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”—Audrey Hepburn
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You’ve finally made it! During this Basic Seed Starting for Beginners three part series you learned how to choose your seeds in part 1. In part 2 you learned how to set up your seed starting station. Finally in part 3 of our Basic Seed Starting for Beginners series, you will learn how to plant your seeds, care for your seedlings, and troubleshoot problems that may arise. You’re almost there! Let’s get started!
Step 1 for basic seed starting for beginners: Decide how much to plant
By now, you have your seed starting station set up, your seeds ordered and according to your seed starting calendar it is time to start some seeds. But how many seeds should you plant? There are so many charts and formulas to be found online that are meant to help folks figure this out. However, I have found so many of these charts unhelpful and very inaccurate.
The best way I have found to decide how much to plant is just through trial and error. Plant however many onion, tomato, or whatever seeds you want for now. At the end of the season, take note of what your harvest yielded and then take note of how much of that you used. Was it used up in a week? In that case I would suggest planting more next year. Did you have so many tomatoes you were desperately giving them away before they went bad? Then maybe plant a bit less next year. Keeping a gardening journal or notebook throughout your gardening journey can help you remember notes for the future.
Step 2: Prepare any seeds that need to be cold stratified or scarified
Many herbs and some fruit seeds need to be cold stratified or scarified before planting. Vegetable garden seeds generally do not need this. You can read more about Cold Seed Stratification and Scarification HERE.
Step 3: Prapare your soil and containers
If you are using any bagged soil you will need to moisten the soil. While this isn’t exactly essential, it does make it easier to water the seeds for the first time.
Estimate how much soil you will need to fill your containers and pour that amount into a large container (like a five gallon bucket or a clean wheelbarrow). Add some water (you will need to eyeball this) and stir. Let the soil sit for a bit to soak up the water and then stir again. Add more water if needed. You want it to be wet enough to stick together but not mud. If you end up with too muddy soil, just let it sit for a while to evaporate and check it every so often until it is the right consistency.
Once your soil is ready, fill your containers with your moistened soil.
If you are using peat pellets, you will needs to rehydrate them in a similar way. Pour 1/2 inch to 1 inch of water at the bottom of your tray full of pellets. Wait about 30 minutes until they are fully moistened and have popped up all the way.
If any have not, just add a little more water and wait another 15 minutes.
Step 4: Plant your seeds
Different seeds need to be planted at different depths. Many very small seeds will needs to only be pressed very lightly into the soil, while others need to be an inch deep. You can figure out how deep to plant your seeds by looking on the back of your seed packet. However, the general rule of thumb is to plant your seeds twice as deep as the seed is long.
Once you have figure out how deep to plant your seeds gently press your seeds into the soil. You may want to plant a couple of seeds per container. This way you will increase your likelihood of a higher germination rate.
Step 5: Water your seeds
For the first couple of weeks, you will want to spray the top of the soil with a spray bottle to water. This is because many of the smallest seeds sit right on top and can dry out quickly. Once dried out they will not germinate. Pouring water over the top will also often just wash the seeds away, lowering your germination as well.
You will also want to bottom water and make sure the trays consistently have 1/2 to 1 inch of water. Wait until the previous water has been fully soaked up though or you will drown them. Just make sure your seeds aren’t swimming or dry and they’ll be fine. Learn more about bottom watering in Part 2.
Step 6: Cover your seeds
At this point you will want to put your plastic covering over your seeds. Do not make this airtight! There does need to be a small amount air flow. This will make a mini-greenhouse which will help your seeds germinate faster. Once your seeds have germinated, you will want to be sure to remove the cover.
Step 7: set your seeds under your grow lights
Once your seeds are planted and watered, you will need to set them under your lights. Your lights need to be fairly close to your seedlings. Only a few inches should separate them.
You may also need to set them on top of your heat mats if you need to use them. Soil temperature for seed germination needs to be around 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit for normal germination. For peppers, this needs to be even higher at around 80 degrees. Keep in mind, this is soil temperature. Not necessarily room temperature.
Step 8: Care for your seedlings
You will want to check that your seedlings daily. Remember, seeds rely on warmth and moisture to germinate–not light, although light does help add heat. Once your seeds have germinated, however, you will need to make sure there are lights on your seedlings for at least 12 hours per day.
You will also need to remove the plastic greenhouse covering once most of the seeds on your trays have germinated. Leaving the plastic cover on too long can cause mold and damping off.
If you have more than one seedling per container you can pinch off the ones you don’t want until there is only one plant per container OR you can separate the seedlings by hand and repot them. If you do this, be very careful of the roots and be very gentle. They are extremely delicate at first.
Also, if your seedlings outgrow their containers, be sure to transplant them to larger containers until it is time to plant them outside our your plants may become root bound. This means the roots start to grow around one another instead of outward toward the nutrients. Most peat pellets are small and need to be transplanted around the time the get their third set of leaves.
Try to mimic nature while you are growing your seedlings to create strong stems.. Some people turn a fan on over their seedlings occasionally or touch them as much as they can.
Step 9: Harden off your seedlings
Finally you have babied you precious seedlings for weeks now and it is time to plant those suckers outside! But wait! You can’t just stick them outside all willy-nilly. If you do this, they will go into shock and most likely die or be stunted.
Hardening off is the process needed to get your seedling acclimated to the temperature and conditions of the outdoors. The process of hardening off is simple, just a little time consuming.
Each day you will need to take your seedlings outside. In a shady area as fist and then gradually to more sunny areas Unitl they are in full sun. You will start with 1-2 hours per day and work your way up, gradually increasing the time outdoors until the seedlings are outside at least 8 hours. The entire process should take 7 to 10 days.
Be sure to watch your seedlings during this process to make sure they do not dry out or get blown over by wind.
Step 10: Transpant
Once you have sufficiently hardened off your seedlings it is transplanting time! Pick your spot, dig a hole, and plant that baby!
Whew! You did it! Thank you for joining me in this Basic Seed Starting for Beginners series. You successfully started your own seeds. If you ran into problems along the way, check out the troubleshooting tips below. Leave me a comment and let me know how it went! Also, if you missed part 1 and part 2 of this series, you can find those here and here.
Troubleshooting Basic seed starting for beginners
My seedlings are really long and have fallen over.
This is termed “leggy seedlings” and is due to the seedlings not having enough light or the light being too far away. This is common when starting seeds in windowsills. The best remedy is to put a light closer to the seedlings.
There is white fuzzy stuff all over my seedlings and soil.
This is a fungus and is usually due to too much moisture. Be sure to remove the plastic greenhouse covering and let the soil air out and even dry a bit. You can try using a fan too. If this fungus takes over too much it can cause damping off–where your seedlings will suddenly die off.
Hardly any of my seeds germinated!
This can be due to a number of things. Too little water, poor quality seeds, and too cold soil temperature are the most common.
The leaves on my seedlings are turning yellow.
This is usually because your seedlings have exhausted the nutrients available in the small container they are in. First, check to see that you seedling is in the correct size container as it may be starting to become root bound. Second, you may need to add some fertilizer to your seedlings. Fish emulsion added to the water when watering is a great natural option.