Saving Money Growing Your Own Seedlings, Spring 2019

I can think of a time in grade school where our 3rd grade teacher had each of my classmates grow some beans in small plastic cups. We poked a couple holes in the bottom, fill with fine dark soil and placed them in a sunny window and sometimes outside the classroom door to soak up the sun. We all would take turns once or twice a day to water them, and eventually we saw white roots digging into the soil, and a little green shoot sprouting. It was the first time I really experienced any sort of "gardening" but like most young kids, mostly all of the seedlings perished after our initial interest waned when Summer vacation came around.

It's coming to the end of February here in San Jose, California. With the California winter chill/rain slowing down, we can see wild apple and cherry trees blooming everywhere. This means it's time to start more tender plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants indoors to eventually put into the garden.

Usually, my family is able to put out vegetable transplants around the last week of April (Specifically the 21st) when it's warm and the roots of our tender plants don't suffer from cold soil.

Often we grow our own transplants at home to save money comparative to buying more mature transplants at the local nursery. It's pretty mind boggling why a seed that may cost a couple cents can turn into a $3 to $5 plant after sprouting in a 4 inch pot. Also, the varieties tend to be less diverse compared to growing your own seeds; if you want to experiment with different and rarer varieties I always recommend growing from seeds.

The cost of seeds can save you a lot of money though there is an initial overhead for the seeds, starting materials, and time to work on the seedlings 1 to 2 hours a day. Once you establish a routine however, it is quicker and less stressful once the seeds actually sprout and form their true leaves (The second pair of leaves after the 1st pair). Often I end up spending less than 30 minutes doing routine maintenance.

To be successful you must prepare the following:

  • Fine Soil (Ideally prepackaged seedling soil and some worm compost mixed in.)
  • De-Chlorinated luke warm water and a spray bottle with a misting option.
  • A leak-proof tray and a plastic covering to increase humidity
  • A heating mat made for seedlings (Do not use warming blankets as it's a shock hazard.)
  • Good quality seeds, either hybrid or heirloom types (Always look for a reputable source, ideally organic, non-gmo and heirloom if you plan on saving your own seeds for next year)
  • Lighting (A shaded and warm wind protected area outside, a sunny window, grow lights indoors)
  • 2 to 4 inch containers (peat based, coco coir based, plastic, reused plastic cups/containers, cardboard egg cartons)

I usually start seedling 8 to 12 weeks before my planned planting date. Starting 12 weeks ahead will give time for slower growing plants to mature but you risk the transplant being root bound if it stays in it's smaller container too long. Sometime if you start the seedlings too late, they will be too tender to survive outside exposed to wind, extreme heat, insects and other pests.

It really is your call, but try aiming for 10 weeks from planting date for best results.

1) Place seed starter into container, leaving about 1/2 to a cm between the soil and the rim.
2) Make a small indent into the middle of the soil either with a finger or the blunt end of a pen/pencil.
3) Place 3 seeds into the indent and cover lightly with the surrounding soil. Compact slightly.
4) Mist the surface of the soil/seeds but do not flood. You want to prevent dislodging of the seeds before they sprout.
5) Place containers in the leak proof tray and cover it with a plastic cover to act as a miniature green house.
6) Place the entire tray and planted containers on a heating mat to encourage faster germination.
7) Place the whole set up in a protected area where it can get plenty of light. A sunny window is adequate but grow lights that you can lower and raise is even better.
8) You must mist the soil with water to prevent drying out until germinating, making sure not to over water since this encourages mold and fungus gnats. Dampening off, a condition which a seedling dies due to pathogens can happen with improperly watered soil. Try not to let the containers stand in water too long, as it can rot the roots.
9) Once the second true leaves appear you may remove the covering to allow better air circulation for the seedlings to breathe.

Once it is 2 to 3 weeks before planting date, you will want to harden off your seedlings to gradually get it ready for the rigors of outside life. Ideally on an overcast day with little wind, bring out your seedlings to a wind protected area without direct sunlight. Repeat 30 minutes a day, then bringing in the seedlings to rest inside. Do not leave out during the night or during hot spells.

Increase the hardening time 30 minutes every couple days to let it transition.

The day of planting, you will have seedlings ready to plant. If you find yourself with too many plants, you can sell them to offset the cost of startup, give away to other gardening friends, or even to your neighbors. 

We will cover in the next post how to plant you seedlings for the best success once we move closer to April. Until then, keep your seedlings watered and be diligent in watching for diseases and mold.

Happy gardening!
-Carlo

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