It’s been a busy month or so, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and economic recession… and, for me, a return to full-time urban homesteading!
This post will cover: Low-cost seedling starts for beginners | Helpful tips and tricks, including seed storage | How to nurture your seedlings | The transition to transplanting
Coronavirus “Victory Garden”
The first order of business as the shutdown of society rolled out was to start my “Coronavirus Victory Garden” by getting some seeds before further lockdowns or increased demand made them unavailable. Luckily, in the last week of March, my partner, “Washboard Karl” (a reference to his musical instrument of choice, not his abs) was able to find all of the seeds on my list at our local Menard’s, as well as some starter plants for things that I have never had luck starting from scratch. Here’s my list:
Seed Starts – Vegetables, Herbs, and Flowers:
- Green Bean
- Zinnia (flower annual)
- Echinacea/Purple Coneflower (flower perennial)
Here’s my list of things I’ve been unable to start from seed successfully, so I just buy starter plants:
- Tomato (I prefer grape or cherry, because they freeze well with no prep: just pop ’em in a freezer bag and enjoy all winter)
- Peppers (bell, jalapeno, banana… whichever you prefer)
- Basil (can’t start this from seed to save my life)
- Parsley (ditto)
- Oregano (haven’t tried from seed, but it tends to come back perennially in southern Michigan – and spreads – so it’s worth the cost to buy a nice starter plant)
So, make your own list, and get ready to start planting!
To start my seedlings, I used an old egg carton (of course, composite board is better than plastic or foam, but if that’s all you have, be sure to poke drainage holes with and awl or nail in the bottom of each compartment.) You can use regular potting soil or special seedling soil; either one will work fine. Follow directions on the seed packet for how deep to place the seeds, and place 2 seedlings per compartment (if fresh-bought) or more if they are older seed packets.
Completely wet down the soil: I used a spray bottle so as not to dislodge the seeds with a hard stream of water. Once the soil is wetted down, you can use an indoor watering can with a narrow spout to keep your seeds moist.
Now that your seeds are planted, you can store your seed packets for subsequent years.
The best way to store your seeds is in an airtight container, with desiccant, in a climate controlled environment. That said, I’ve kept seeds in my very primitive shed for many years and they always germinated for me, so there’s that!
But this time around, I decided to do it right, and here’s how:
Make some DIY desiccant with non-dairy creamer: take apart an old teabag, fill it with the creamer, and re-staple. Unlike other desiccant materials, creamer can’t be reconstituted. When it hardens, it’s done, so make another desiccant bag. Since this is my first year doing this, I will check on it in 6 months and make another bag if I need to.
Put your seeds and the desiccant bag in an airtight container (food storage unit, old jar, whatever) and pop it in the fridge. Done.
And now you can focus on nurturing your “babies!”
Nurture Your Seedlings
The soil has to be kept warm for seeds to germinate, so I placed mine on top of the piano, under the piano lamp. With the lamp on 24/7, the soil was kept reasonably warm even when the heat went down at night. It only took a day and a half for the beans, kale, radish, and peas to sprout. Other veggies came a day or two later. The herbs were next, and the flowers last. Be patient! Keep the soil moist; the small amount of soil in an egg carton can dry out fast, so check twice a day.
Once everything has sprouted, you can shut off the grow light. Take your seedlings outside in the afternoon sun if it’s warm enough. If not, then put them by a sunny window during the day. Turn them every day so they don’t lean too much toward the sun. Take them away from the cold window at night. Once they’re about an inch high, turn a fan on them for a couple hours every day to strengthen the stems.
As they’re growing, you can watch the weather, and decide when is the best time to plant them.
Get Ready to Transplant Outdoors
Check the planting guidelines for your zone, and get your seedlings ready to transplant. Gradually harden off your seedlings by taking them outside in the sunshine for a few to several hours every day.
This year, even though it is the middle of April and the seedlings should be sunning themselves on the porch, we had a couple inches of snow yesterday (because… Michigan!) So my seedlings are staying indoors for now, and some are in danger of outgrowing their egg-carton home.
Upcycled newspaper pots will provide a roomier home for the bigger ones as we await planting weather. The bonus here is that you can transplant the young plants, pots and all, when the time comes. The newspaper will disintegrate as the plants grow. For these established seedlings, I used a regular soup can to make the pots. You can also start the seedlings in newspaper pots from the get-go, if you wish. Head over to GardenBetty.com for a great newspaper pot how-to. It’s very easy; you just form the pots around a can or jar.
Happy growing, and I’ll update this post with transplanting tips and photos when my seedlings finally go in the ground!