Seedling Secrets–Hand ‘ Em Over

by Daisy

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Confession:  I’ve never been very successful growing stout little plants from seed indoors.  They germinate well and seem happy but never look like those brick house-looking dynamos from the nursery.

I have a cool bulb and a warm bulb, a fan, etc., etc., but the plants reach a point and just seem to stop growing.  There’s no obvious sign of disease, no damping off issues, usually.  Just wimpy plants.

I’ve sent in my seed order and am getting my supplies ready (invested in a small heat mat this year) but I need some helpful advice.

So, I’m turning to your collective wisdom, readers.  Help me make this year the year I get my seedlings to grow muscles. Is it too cold in my house?  Do I really need a greenhouse to get those chunky starts?

What’s your secret?

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

rowena___. January 22, 2010 at 6:43 am

just this week i got a book from the library called “the no-work garden” by bob flowerdew who suggests home gardeners not even worry about the size of their seedlings or even their mature plants. what matters is their production, not their exhibition. the author states that most recommendations for the desired size of garden plants is based on commercial growers growth and maturity needed to deliver attractive plants, flowers, and veggies to market. home gardeners don’t need to achieve that level of production, usually. so he suggests that unless you intend to enter your production in a competition (which i understand many home gardeners do–county fairs, garden shows, etc), it doesn’t matter how big your home plants are so long as they are healthy and are producing to your satisfaction.

being that i am still very much learning about gardening i was very gladdened to read that.

Bethany James January 22, 2010 at 8:23 am

I’m pretty fascinated by this Winter Sown thing. I think I’m gonna try it this year. I can’t do much worse than last year, seedling-wise.

Whit January 22, 2010 at 10:44 am

I’ve been thinking about this alot too. I’ll be trial and erroring my way through seed starts this year also. A seed is a seed, right? They don’t sell bionic seeds to nurseries to lure us in to seedling sales (when our attempts at growing our own fail miserably, eh?) Plus, they have a dedicated staff for seedling care (don’t we gardening housewives wish we had something like that!?!) They also douse them with fertilisers, eh? Also, i can’t imagine that they don’t have their share of legginess or under-performing seeds. They just cull those out between the hours of 6pm and 8am, eh? :o)

I think that little seedlings would do just fine once they are planted in the ground, as long as they aren’t stunted with cold temps. Those plants will pout big time–especially plants like toms–one day to under 50 degrees and they’ll stop growing for a week. And i am a firm believer in alfalfa meal mixed into the surrounding soil and warm water baths when i plant seedlings into the ground. Best advice i’ve heard is to treat the plant like a teenager…figure it’s too lazy to want to do anything for itself, but you still have to do everything in your power to keep them alive–feed them, water them, love them even though they are fickle. Soon, they’ll return the favour. 🙂

I really dig the idea that Bethany posted about the winter sown seed. This time of year, i see millk jugs “sprouting” up in little micro farms all around us. Now i know why. :o)

Hannah January 22, 2010 at 11:14 am

I’ve been trying to start seeds inside as well and haven’t had too much luck either. I tried to do it using these newspaper pots that I could make myself and that would biodegrade right into the ground when the seedlings were ready to go outside.
However, I couldn’t keep the dirt/seeds moist enough in these newspaper bins, so I’ll have to try something new… maybe starting them inside egg shells:
Good luck! I’m curious about what other people are doing with their seeds too!

Jennifer January 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

I am still in the trial and error phase of growing my own seedlings, but one mistake I made last year was not to transplant my plants from their small yogurt containers that I started them in, to bigger pots. I just kept letting them grow in the small containers and then planted them outside. So I have been collecting larger containers to transplant and will try that this year.

Advaya January 22, 2010 at 1:47 pm

I was also going to suggest wintersowing. This is my first year doing it, but it’s wonderful being able to play in the dirt even in January without having to worry about the hardening off issues that seedlings develop growing inside.

Dolly January 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

I finally had some success last year with my indoor seedlings. Y’know those oversized clear plastic bags that quilts and blankets come in? I had some of those packed away in a closet, so I used them as mini-greenhouses. I coaxed quite a few more plants up in these, and the condensation kept the newspaper pots moist. Plus they’re sturdy enough to reuse this year. I’m also going to buy some oversized ziplock bags and see how well those work.

And I agree that the commercial nurseries have more tricks up their sleeves than are available to us homegrowers, so don’t sweat it too much.

jen January 22, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I always kept my flourescent light just an inch above the seedlings AND in a very sunny window and that seemed to work the best. It requires moving the light a lot. I hung it from a chain to make it easier. Don’t fertilize too much too soon (and think potassium and phosphorus for strong stems and roots and small amounts of nitrogen for slower green growth–a typical flower fert is best here) and take the heat mat off as soon as you get sprouts. Cooler is better at that point–allows slower and steadier growth rather than spindly seedlings. I have worked in greenhouses and started seeds many a year at home, but haven’t since my 6 year old was born due to being busy and a medical ailment.

Sadge January 22, 2010 at 7:36 pm

My seedlings are usually quite small when they go into the garden, but I think it lessens the transplant shock as once they do start growing they equal or surpass the neighbors’ “boughten” ones. I do use wall-o-waters to get them off to a better start when first set out – both as late frost protection and wind break. I worked in a nursery for a while, and they douse their container plants with fertilizer at every watering, making them look really good at the time, increasing sales, but once out in the garden and minus the fertilizing they’ve become accustomed to sets them back.

Kat January 22, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Last year I started eggplant indoors. They were okay. I then bought two starts in 6″ pots at the store that looked strong and healthy. I then scattered the rest of my seeds in the garden directly. The latter were the most prolific. I might not start any seeds indoor this year.

Patty January 22, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Another thing to keep in mind is the quality of the seeds you buy. I have read that you get what you pay for. If the package has a photograph on it, and comes from the drug store, you quite likely will have poorer germination rates with less hardy plants than those purchased from a high quality seed company.
Maybe that has been my problem!

PJ January 22, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I’ve started my tomatos from seed for 20 years. they grow using sunlight and go out when fairly small I use the small plastic pots over and over be sure they are clean
be sure to dampen them off mine live in the garage for a week ( and go out in the daytime) before I plant them in June. I got 27lbs last year that is enough for us.

Anita D'Souza January 22, 2010 at 8:44 pm

recent subsciber here – I found you in a search for a homemade detergent recipe. Love your blog! I’ve done wintersowing for a couple years (here in Michigan) with good results. I’ve had the best results with sunflowers, violas, lettuces, hardy greens, and tomatoes. They’re not necessarily huge starting out, but are extremely hardy and essentially require no work once you put the seeds in the dirt until you transplant them, though I love going outside and peeking inside my containers to see how they’re doing.

Spring January 22, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I have no tips on starting seeds as this is the first year I will be trying. So I am enjoying reading all the answers! But I wanted to add that last year (a bad year for tomatoes- it rained for 40 out of 44 days June in July here), I bought some tomato plants from Lowes, order some from Burpee, and had some little spindly extras given to me by a friend. The spindly ones topped the others in production, even in a horrid weather year. So this year I am going to be brave and try starting my own!

Handcrafter January 22, 2010 at 9:16 pm

We use an old 75 gallon fish tank. It has a tiny heater, full spectrum terrarium lights and a lid to contain warmth and humidity.

Alice January 22, 2010 at 10:38 pm

There is so much to do for successful seed starting that many people fail due to “conditions” is what I have learned. After much expense I eventually direct sowed my seed in the spring garden (in Florida) but this may not be possible for you. The water should be room temp for misting as well as adding to the soil when planting seed indoors. If it is tomato plants that are leggy just strip the leaves off the leggy part and plant the whole stem in the ground digging the hole as deep as the extra length with at least 4 full leaf bracts above ground. The amount of sunlight needed for good growth in starts can’t duplicated very easily indoors. Try an area by window that gets full sun and rotate the seed tray daily. There are some vegetable seed that should only be planted in the garden when the soil warms. Then there are those that you can use covers to warm the ground and get a few weeks head start outside. Oh goodness it goes on and on. Best of luck to you with your garden.

CoreyDebbie January 22, 2010 at 11:39 pm

We just started growing from seed this year, too. I have noticed that the type of soil you use matters a lot. I lost many of my initial seedlings to damping off, as I was using a soil and peat moss pellet to start seeds. I have switched to a soilless soil and it seems to be working well. Also, watch your watering – making sure not to overwater. I was killing mine with love hehe. The heating mat should help you sprout your seeds quicker. I bought one, and noticed my seeds sprouting much more quickly. We have a worm composting system going, and occasionally feed the plants and seedlings with the worm tea. Do you have a worm composting setup? If not, I’d suggest it, especially if you’re gardening!

Lacy from Montana January 23, 2010 at 2:28 am

I have been using the Aerogarden aeroponic system to start seeds and it really works great. They make a reusable tray that you put a soil pod into and your own seed. I like it because the roots are allowed to roam free in nutrient rich H2O and then there is less shock in transplanting. Has worked great for me. P.S. don’t ever ever ever plant sunberries. They are deceptively delicous looking but taste awful and then turn into weeds sprouting up everywhere. Do forgive my digression.

Betty January 23, 2010 at 8:21 am

Okay, this is going to be the oddest hint, but it really works. I thought my husband was crazy when he first suggested it, but we ended up with beautiful, strong seedlings last season. Pet your seedlings. Yes,you read that correctly. Pet your seedlings. Run your hand lightly over the tops as they are growing and the stems will thicken. What you’re actually doing is simulating the breeze blowing on them which causes them to strengthen their stems. By imitating nature, you’ll have some much stronger plants. Hope this helps!

Betty January 23, 2010 at 8:26 am

Oh, and I almost forgot, water from below not above. Place your seedling in a tray and, after they’ve germinated, keep water in the tray letting it wick up into your potting mix and forcing the roots to grow deeper. Your soil matters also. Use a pottin MIX, not a potting soil. Lots of luck to you!


JavaLady January 23, 2010 at 9:28 am

I do the pack rat thing all year and stow away all those disposable food platters from parties, restaurants, that came from the bakery or deli — the ones with a clear plastic lid. They make great little green houses to start your seedlings out in. Last year we used both peat pellets (expensive little buggers) and newpaper pots and egg shells. We had best success with the egg shells and I was happy since I do have 4 hens that lay plenty of eggs. I do agree with many of the ladies that for best success DO buy good quality seeds from the local feed store, not the dime store baggies. I got much much more out of all my gardens over the years from good seeds rather than cheap ones. I started mine all indoors, then once they had the tiny two leaves, I put all the containers out on the back porch. What a site that was! We misted or watered from the bottom as needed. Then took the clear tops off for about two weeks before we got started putting them out in the garden (aka my back flowerbed area) and along the fence line. They did fine. I will do it this way again. And my New Year Resolution this year it to finally get giant sunflowers and morning glories to grow together again along the long fence line on the road — very pretty and very dramatic effect for sooo little work. LOL Happy Gardening.
If you get take-out or fast food in containers with clear lids ( like Taco Bell Nachos…) save those also even though they are smaller than big party trays. They work great !

JavaLady January 23, 2010 at 9:33 am

Hey I found a link that shows you what I am talking about in my post above. Great minds think alike !! Why do this ? Because the clear lids let in the sunshine, but also retain the moisture, while making a mini-green house effect. Plus you are recycling and being green to your own environment.

CarrieK January 23, 2010 at 11:36 am

Serendipity! I had this in my email box next to your blog…
It’s all about starting seeds! I’ve had trouble with wimpy seedlings too. I always figured it was due to me living in the NW. I’ve been considering a heat mat too. I suspect that the seedlings we buy at the store are given Miracle Grow or it’s equivalent. Not ready to do that yet, so I’ll stick with my south-facing window for now. Last year I had 4 tomato plants from seed. Not a bad start, eh?

Deb January 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Never fertilize with any more than half strength fertilizer. Remove heat mat after sprouting. Keep lights very close to seedlings, no more than 3 inches above. Usings chains or wires to suspend lights makes them easier to move up and down. Sometimes I even place the lights at an angle for a few days, this exposes lower leaves and stems to a more direct light, rather just strictly overhead. The pupose of the fan is to help strengthen the stems as well as keep the air circulating to prevent fungi growth. I grow all my seedlings on a 12 foot bench in a cool basement, under a bank of flourescents, 2 shop lights wide by 3 shop lights long and keep moving the trays around so that everyone gets some different lighting

Tanya Walton January 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I just sow my seeds into trays and then put into one of those mini greenhouses to germinate in the spring….once they have been pricked out I then out them outside for a few days still bringing them in at night and then outside in the trays for a few days and nights before planting them out….this process hardens off the seedlings so that it’s not a shock when they go into the slightly cooler earth. It’s always worked for me so if you want to give this a try I hope it works for you too!!

Deb January 23, 2010 at 7:59 pm

addendum to my post – I posed your dilemma to some internet dirt buddies, here is their input
1.If growing on a rack of shelves, like a homemade pvc gro system, place plastic sheet under your trays to help raise humidity in that shelf area
2.Make sure to add good compost to your starting mix, adds beneficial bacterium
3.Things seem to do just as well (or better) if you direct sow, outside, in the spring

Jen January 25, 2010 at 8:01 am

Betty is absolutely right. That has been scientifically proven! I had forgotten that tip!

jamie April 6, 2010 at 11:31 am

I started mine inside toilet paper rolls. I cut them in half cross wise so I had little pots. I think the mold that grew on them was problematic, though. Next year, I’m going with the little plastic starter trays you get at a nursery. They won’t mold.

The plants just acted like they weren’t well, and were turning yellow even though I was watching my watering. I think perhaps the dirt wasn’t the best either. But hey, they sprouted and are now in the garden plot!

Lesa April 11, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I’ve been writing about a successful system I use for growing stocky transplants for the garden in my blog at:
Basically, I incorporate a lot of the elements everyone has commented on, soilless mix, bottom watering, flourescent lights, etc. but I find that it’s necessary to transplant them so they aren’t spindly. I’d not heard about petting them though, that’s something to try – it makes sense to me!

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