Seed Starting: Step by Step

Seed Starting: Step by Step

Last weekend I started the tomatoes and peppers, and thanks to my fancy new iPhone, I managed to document it on a step by step basis for once. I’m not particularly scientific about my garden, and I don’t really keep notes from year to year (well, aside from this blog, that is), but I generally start tomato and pepper seeds on a Saturday around March 15.

This year I planted four varieties I’ve grown before and for which I’d saved seed: Jaune Flammé, Principe Borghese, Galina, and Prairie Fire; and four new tomatoes, all from Baker Creek Heirlooms:  Stupice, Koralik, Cherokee Purple, and Riesentraube. (Record keeping for this involves clipping the ones I planted this year together with a binder clip and writing “2011” on a post it note on the front package.)

Peppers are a similar story. I have three varieties I’ve grown before and for which I saved seed: Aci Sivri Turkish, Granpa’s Siberian Home Pepper,  and Cayenne. Then there are four new ones I bought from Baker Creek: Hungarian Hot Wax (grew some last summer and they were the bomb for pickling), Santa Fe Grande Jalapeno, Tunisian Baklouti, and Fish Pepper.

Planting decisions are dependent on the amount of space I have for seed starting, and the amount of space in my garden. I invested in two seed-starting heat mats when I started this whole gardening thing. They’re going on year 8 this year, and they were definitely worth it. I get probably about 90% germination rate, and nice strong plants. I can fit four flats on my germination setup.

The first step is to fill all the 4-cell plastic inserts (again, bought these the first year, and have recycled them for 8 years now) with damp soil. Then, because I’m sort of literal, and visual, I like to lay the seed packets out across the sets of cells so I don’t get confused. I do this when I’m transplanting too — I like to set the actual plants out where they’re going to go so I can get an idea about whether they’re going to look okay.

I plant 2 seeds per cell, 4 cells per flat, and 3 flats across per row. For the tomatoes, I planted one row each of each variety. For the peppers, I planted two rows each of Hot Wax and Cayenne, since those are the peppers I put up with the most success, and I really like having my own on hand. They took a lot of effort, and had to stay under plastic for a long time, but every time I break a dried medium-hot cayenne off the ristra I’m happy about the effort. The Granpa’s Home Pepper I’m going to grow in pots this year. It’s a nice bushy pepper like the ornamental houseplant peppers my mother grew when I was a kid, and I’d like to try to bring it in next winter. (I don’t have great success with houseplants, but Himself does, so I might send one over to live in his bay window with the geraniums).

Because I am a huge nerd, I also use my trusty P-Touch to label the seed cells. If the plastic is dry and relatively free from dirt, these labels will really hold. My other seed-starting tricks are to put the seeds in a little Chinese sauce dish, like in the top photo, so you can get at them, and I use an old chopstick for poking holes. Very high-tech.


Once I’m done, they get one more sprinkle of water from my fancy Haws watering can (a present, and one I thought was impractical at the time, but the watering head is perfect for seedlings) and the clear plastic lids go on, and then I wait.



Once the seeds sprout, I lowered the light (grow light bulbs) so it’s hanging just over the flats. You want the light close so your seedlings don’t get too leggy. The tomatoes are all up and thinned (I fed the thinnings to the new baby chickens) and I’ll let them harden off a little bit upstairs before I move them downstairs, where they’ll be under lights for 14 hours a day but without the heat mat.

In about a month, if it warms up, I’ll put them outside in the cold frame during the day to get some real sunshine. Our official last day of frost is May 17 here, but I rarely plant tomatoes outside before Memorial day.

Although I’m not crazy about the amount of plastic involved in this whole process, I have to say that it’s been an investment that has paid for itself by now. When I started out I probably bought 12 flats with enough 4-cell inserts to fill them, and about 6 plastic lids. I also bought the heat mats and I can’t remember if I bought a lot of the 4-inch pots that I transplant into or if I’ve just saved them from plants I’ve bought over the years, but I now have enough stuff to really start seeds in the spring. I also bought a whole bale of seed starting medium three years ago, and I’ve probably still got 2/3 left. Saving your own seed also helps keep the costs down — this year was the first in probably 3 years that I’ve put in a major seed order — in part because I wanted to try some new things, and in part because there were some herbs and greens that I’d run out of seed for. Tomatoes and peppers are a cinch to save seed, and aside from the cost savings, what you wind up doing is selectively breeding a seed that works well in your own garden. With our short season, and extremes of temperature, I like finding a few varieties, like my beloved Jaune Flammé, that do well in my yard and taste delicious. And for me, I also want to grow something interesting and different from the cookie-cutter varieties available in the garden centers. As far as I’m concerned, Early Girl is as much a corporate product as a grocery store tomato, and for me, part of the purpose of growing my own garden is to subvert some of the influence of Corporations in our daily life.

5 thoughts on “Seed Starting: Step by Step

  1. It seems to me that using plastic that you buy once and use over and over is better than, say, getting a new something degradable every year with all the manufacturing side-effects? I had intended to save yogurt containers, but gave up when we were just so sick all of the time that I could barely keep us in clean clothes much less anything else…

    And how is your last frost date less than 2 weeks after mine??

    Off to go plant my weekly seedlings… 🙂 (With the loss of Iggy, I now have way too many collard and mizuna seedlings. I guess I should plant more broccoli or lettuce or something.)

    1. You could get a bunny for the greens? Or find a food bank …

      Yeah, that’s how I feel about the plastic. It’s one of the dark secrets of organic gardening/farming, the amount of plastic used — esp. for those folks who use plastic mulch. I figure that it’s plastic is a downside, but then again, I’m going on 8 years of use, and it’s set up to make maximum use of the space I’ve got.

      This year, I’m thinking newspaper mulch, particularly for that bed that was infested with purslane. A nice thick bed of newspaper, and cut holes to stick the plants in … recycle my newspaper at home, and kill some weeds? (Straw mulch was okay when I could get barley straw, but the wheat straw left me infested with wheatgrass.)

  2. I love Bakers Creek; I ordered different seeds from them again this year, one also being the Purple Cherokee Tom’s. Unfortunately though, the Jupiter Peppers I had high hopes for don’t seem to want to sprout for me ;/

  3. Hi I’ve started seeds this year and I have them outside right now under loose plastic. Inside the plastic its very wet and dripping into the pots. Is this ok??? I wasn’t sure if it’s too much sun for the seeds being planted yesterday. I don’t have lights to put them under. So when they start sprouting I take the plastic off correct?? Thanx

    1. I wouldn’t worry too much about the dripping — seeds like to be pretty moist when they’re starting up. Full sun might be a little much though for seedlings — you’ll want to watch that they don’t burn up –once you have little seedlings, you might want to put them someplace where the light is filtered a little bit — under some trees maybe or use an opaque plastic — You don’t say what part of the country you’re in — here we can’t put anything outside until late May because of frost, but if your nights are warm, then you can leave them outdoors.

      Half the fun is experimenting to see what works for you — so don’t get too worried about doing it “right” — “right” is whatever works!

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