Where to start?
Starting a website is like starting a garden–illusions of future grandeur must be temporarily set aside in favor of hard work, which often begins with that humble first seed. What better topic for our first article then, than seed starting?
Regardless of when you are reading this, the perfect time to start seeds is right now. Your grandmother may have told you that one can only start seeds in the four to six-week period prior to “last frost,” whenever that is. With all due respect, Grandma was wrong. That’s right–even if you live in the Arctic Tundra in a state of permafrost, even if it is the middle of summer and a bite of one of those home-grown tomatoes from your neighbor has inspired you, even if it is late fall harvest and everyone you know is pulling their vegetables out of the ground, not putting them in–go ahead and start some seed. Our mission here at Van Arden Farms is to help you “farm” regardless of your circumstances, and in future posts, we will address how to do just that in all of the foregoing situations. For now, we are going to focus on getting something growing.
The 5-step parenting guide for seeds.
Children and pets are hard. Seeds are easy. Provided they aren’t old or otherwise defective, they need the following to grow:
- growing medium (for example, dirt)
- food (for example, minerals found in dirt)
- eventually, light
Q: I’m just getting started here, and am not ready to commit to five whole steps. Any way to consolidate it into, like, three?
A: Yes! Lucky for all of us, the folks at Jiffy and other gardening companies have made seed starting easy by manufacturing kits that consolidate the first three items on the list by providing nutrient-rich soil pellets for seeds, and a plastic house to raise them in.
Seed starting kits are essentially mini-greenhouses that maintain the right balance of warmth and humidity during those crucial early days. The smaller and less-expensive versions resemble a restaurant take-out container at first sight, but they have channels in the bottom to direct water to the roots, as opposed to the tender new leaves. They often come pre-filled with a set of nutrient-fortified peat pellets, which are equally inexpensive to replace–so take care of and reuse those plastic trays!
The pricier kits may have a sturdier build, a built-in water reserve, a soil-less growing medium such as rockwool or sponge, or a heat source. The purpose of these advanced features varies–some are to reduce the amount of maintenance required, some are intended to speed up growth, and some are intended to help you “clone” cuttings–that is, grow plants from plants rather than from seed. Thus, if you are a beginner, it’s best to stick to the cheap stuff for now and reserve your investment for when you’ve got a better handle on your farming and gardening needs.
In addition to starting cheap, we further suggest you start small. Trust us, we’ve been there, at the home improvement store, clutching our basket full of every single seed packet available (even okra, and we don’t really like okra, but fried okra’s a thing, right, so maybe we will?), and under such a situation, the 72-pellet starter kit–nay, SIX of the 72-pellet starter kits–is the only option that seems to make sense. However, those six starters take up a lot of indoor square footage, are difficult to place against windows, and will undoubtedly lead to feeling overwhelmed and throwing out the vast majority of the seedlings. In our experience, it is much better to start with smaller kits that can be placed in the windowsill–ideally above the kitchen sink or another easy water source–and to continually replant them with new seed pellets. Not only will this improve the manageability of the process, but it will ensure your garden is being replenished at consistent intervals.
Here we are starting with Jiffy’s 12-pellet windowsill greenhouse, which we will use to plant four pellets each of cilantro, oregano, and bibb lettuce. Why four pellets each, you ask? To increase our chance of success. If all four work out, then we will use all four, but if you have extra vegetable seedlings lying around, you can always find someone to take them off your hands.
After removing the packaging and the lid, pour two cups of hot water (the hottest water coming out of your tap is fine) into the tray, making sure to evenly cover all of the pellets.
Within minutes, the pellets will drink up the water and expand. Continue to add hot water until all of the pellets have expanded and are saturated.
Poke the center of each pellet with a chopstick or other pointed object to open it up to a depth consistent with the directions on the seed packet. Here, we are going ¼-inch deep to accommodate the cilantro seeds. Plant two or three seeds in each pellet, and close up the hole where you planted them by using the chopstick to move dirt on top of the seeds.
For fine seed, such as oregano, you do not want to bury it under the dirt at all. Instead, scrape the top of the dirt with the chopstick to loosen it, then lightly sprinkle seed on top directly from the seed packet.
Label your work so you can keep track of what is what, and replace the lid. Put the tray in a windowsill and do nothing for one week. That’s right, nothing–no water, no checking on things, nothing.
And here are our particular results one week in–the bibb and oregano have already sprouted, while the cilantro is taking its sweet time. This is typical for the respective seed size of these edibles, and don’t worry if your results vary as well. Because this windowsill is relatively warm, we are keeping the lid off from this point out to avoid suffocating the seedlings. If yours is colder, you may want to prop the lid open in the day and close it fully at night. Also do your best to avoid over-watering–water is only necessary if the pellets begin to dry out, and should be poured into the bottom of the tray rather than over the seedlings.
Sure, there are a lot of additional comments we could make about thinning out, adding a heat mat or other tricks of the trade, but those are fodder for another post. Happy planting!
P.S. Okay, one additional comment we would like to make is that it is perfectly acceptable to start your seedlings in these peat pellets even if you are planning on transplanting the plant to a hydroponic or other soil-less system–it just requires a bit of rinsing come moving day. We personally find these pellets to be lower cost and lower-maintenance than starting seeds in rockwool or sponge pods, although each of those methods have their place.