Monday, March 10, 2014

Starting Seeds For Amateurs

I like a pretty garden. Who doesn't?

I am completely and utterly smitten with pretty gardens. I have fond memories of my parents' gardens and all the weeding that came with it. My mom's garden seemed so effortless--she planted the plants, she sent me and my sister out to weed them every so often, and they lived! It was pure magic.

Fast forward to our first Spring in our new home and it was not at all like I expected it to be.

I guess maybe because I decided to start my plants from seeds? My parents always bought already established plants and transplanted them, but those costs can add up quickly. A packet of seeds will cost you only a couple bucks and you can save the seeds (within reason) for a couple of years. Being on a budget, this is awesome, plus you get to nurture little plants from tiny seedlings to big strong plants.

Just kidding, it didn't work out that way for me. You can read all the nitty gritty details of the epic failure of my first garden attempts and how I resolved to change that this year here,

I meant to share this last week, but thanks to the stomach bug from hell I was a bit out of commission. But over the weekend, we made some serious seedling progress (and had what could very well be my first fail), so I thought I'd share how to start seeds since this is the time to start. I'll check in periodically to let you all know if my garden is a barren wasteland of sadness, or if my plans actually worked out.

And here, my friends, is how to start seeds for an amateur. I make no claims to be a pro (and you'll see why), but I thought it would be fun to share what I'm learning as I go.

See those seeds in the photo above? Those are Calendula seeds and they are so delightfully creepy and curly that I think they are my favorite. I actually harvested these from the Calendula I started from seed last year...the only really successful starts I had.

And now, some steps:

1.) Gather your supplies. You'll need:

  • A good seed starting mix (don't use potting soil yet because it's too dense for little baby root systems)
  • A seed starting tray. This included the little cells for each seedling, a tray to hold them (and to water from underneath), and a dome to keep in the humidity during those important germination stages). You could get creative and use yogurt cups, smaller plastic cups, pots made out of newspaper, whatever you can find. You just want to make sure that whatever you use can drain easily, so you could poke some holes into the bottom of a plastic cup if that's what you're using.
  • Seed packets of your choice. Make sure you choose plants that will thrive in your agricultural zone.
  • A small shovel (but let's get real here and I'll admit I just used my hands)
  • Water
2.) Wet your seed starting mixture and mix it in a bucket. You don't want it to be absolutely soaking went, but you want it to clump together nicely. Add the mixture to your tray of cells or your cups or whatever it is that you're using.

This is a good time to label your cells/cups/whatever. Last year I failed to do this and just wrote out a diagram on a scrap piece of paper and then I lost it. Seedlings are tricky in that when they're itty bitty babies you have NO CLUE what they are unless you label them properly. 

I took popsicle sticks, broke them in half, and then stuck each half into the first cell at the top of a column. I labelled these A through J. Then I numbered down the left side of my tray, 1 through 5. Not only did I write it out on a scrap piece of paper, but this set-up also translates nicely to an Excel spreadsheet. My spreadsheet-lovin' self is totally down with that. Now I know what seeds are planted in each cell and it's saved in a Google docs spreadsheet--no more confusion and losing pieces of paper!

3.) Grab your seed packets and check how deeply each seed needs to be planted. For example, the delphinium and shasta daisy seeds said to cover with 1/8" of soil. So I poked my seeds into the cell with tweezers at about the suggested depth and covered gently with my finger, providing just enough pressure so the seed is making good contact with the seed starting mixture. Two to three seeds can be planted in each cell to ensure a better rate of germination, but they'll be thinned out later to one seedling per cell--so don't get too attached to each and every little seed.

As I planted, I made sure I wrote down on my paper what seeds were going into each cell. To make it easy on myself, I kept the columns the same type of seed:

Column A - Delphinium - I really have no hope of germination with these. I had read that they're difficult to start so if I really have no luck with them I'll plant some seeds in my garden in the fall as recommended to give them the winter to really develop.

Columns B and C - Shasta Daisy

Columns D and E - Oriental Poppy - these could have easily just been broadcast into my garden bed as I understand that they don't need too much to germinate.

Column F - Hollyhock - these can be directly sown, but I am impatient and just really wanted to see some green life happening.

Columns G and H - Calendula - again, I probably could have directly sown these, but there's the impatience showing through again. I know these are prolific germinators, so in a minute I'll show you why I really should have waited and just sown these directly.

4.) Add water to the bottom of the tray. Adding water directly to the seed starting medium will disrupt the seed, so bottom watering is much more gentle. Cover your tray with the provided plastic dome (or use plastic wrap if you are using individual cups) and place on a heating mat out of direct sunlight. I don't have a heating mat, so I stuck my tray on the top of my refrigerator. It's relatively dark up there and the heat from the fridge keeps things nice and warm.

Check your tray/cups/whatever you are using daily. Water as necessary, although the plastic covering will do a pretty good job of keeping the moisture in. 

As soon as you see green, uncover your tray and put in direct sunlight (a south-facing window or under a grow light).

This is where things get hairy for me. I had noted on my spreadsheet the estimated germination time of each seed as referenced on the seed packet. Each seed packets noted at least 7 to 14 day germination periods, so I thought my tray would be living on top of the fridge for at least a week and half before I started to see any tiny green leaves poking through.

I forgot to check my tray for two days, and when I peeked up there on Saturday afternoon:

This is once I moved it into the light and thinned out the super leggy seedlings, but you get the idea: progress!

Eeek! My Calendula seeds had germinated in 7 days and had already grown tall and spindly! This is referred to as a "leggy" seedling because the seedling will stretch for light if it doesn't receive as much as it needs. This is no bueno because the seedling will eventually flop over and probably die an untimely death.  Luckily, I was able to thin out the most leggy of seedlings to allow some of the shorter seedlings to remain, but I've got a few tall ones. I'm thinking I may transplant these into deeper cups a little lower to let the stem build some strength, cross my fingers, and hope that works. If that fails, then I can always directly sow the Calendula seeds into my garden after the danger of frost has passed.

You'll also see that I have germination in almost every column of my tray (except for--can you guess?--the delphinium seeds). The little flecks of green are reassuring that I'm not failing completely over here, and we've had a few more tiny leaves poke through the seed starting mixture since Saturday. This tray is currently sitting by my south-facing sliding glass door, so I'm hoping we won't have to rig up a DIYed grow light (this is on my list of things to do, but hasn't happened yet, unfortunately).

Once each seedling gets its second set of leaves, I will transplant these into potting mix in solo cups until they're ready to be planted in late April/early May.

Spring is on its way, friends!

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Also linking up to:
Coastal Charm
Savvy Southern Style
Imparting Grace
Jennifer Rizzo


  1. I like to plant seedlings each year, but sometimes I don't have much success. Thanks for sharing your technique. :-)

    1. Last year the only success I had was with Calendula seedlings. Everything else kicked the bucket. Here's to a successful garden this year for you and me both! Thanks for dropping in, Kim!

  2. Such a helpful post! I didn't know that about the leggy seedlings. Explains a few things...I would love to have you share at Fridays Unfolded!


    1. Hi Allison! Yes--I learned about leggy seedlings the hard way last year and I promised myself I wouldn't let it happen again this year! Those little seedlings can grow so fast once they start. I'm hoping they can be saved. Thanks for stopping by and I will check out Fridays Unfolded!

  3. Ha! We just started our calendulas this past weekend. I knew right away from your first picture what they were! Whacky seeds.

    1. Hi Connie! They are totally wacky. When I first started them last year I was totally bewildered by them! Thanks for dropping in!


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