Creek County Master Gardener: Seed Starting

Kathy Berryhill
Creek County Master Gardener

Upcoming Event:  Master Gardener Plant & Yard Sale May 6th at the Creek County Courthouse parking lot.  Hours are 7:30-11AM.

The recent rains are welcome in our gardens. Along with sunny days, the rains encourage our plants to begin new growth.  This is a good time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials so they will establish roots before the stress of summer heat hits. reports a cool soil temperature of 46 degrees.  While cool-season crops can be in the ground now, keep in mind that it is still too early to plant annuals.  Cool soil temperature and ample moisture will most likely cause the plant to rot.  Additionally, we are still subject to freezing temperatures which would kill an annual plant. 

Starter seedlings via Unsplash

Many gardeners are starting seeds now.  There are many benefits to growing plants from seed, but for some it’s a challenging task.  Seed starting has an economical benefit as the cost of one package of seeds is less than the cost of a single plant.  Whether seeds are store bought or ordered from a company, the variety of choices are always better.  Heirloom, non-GMO and organic choices in seeds far exceed the availability of plant selection.  Seeds that are started inside now will be ready to move to the ground in a few weeks when the temperatures are higher.

Growing media (soil) provides the nutrients that plants need.  Common dirt isn’t a good choice for inside seeding as germination probably won’t occur. Backyard dirt is compacted, probably has weed seeds and definitely is not sterile, which could lead to disease.   Potting soil contains mulch, has a coarse texture and may contain fertilizer so it isn’t suitable either.  Seed starting soil is the best choice and can be purchased or made at home.  A basic recipe for seed starting soil combines 4 parts compost, 1 part perlite, and 2 parts peat moss.  Peat moss is becoming harder to find, but coconut fiber can be used as a replacement. 

Place the soil in a 2-3” deep container.  The container may be divided into separate cells or not.  Often water availability for each cell is more challenging then just using an undivided container.  Good choices of containers include seed trays, peat pellets or even food safe household items.  Cardboard egg cartons or even empty toilet paper rolls make good containers. 

Ensure that the seeds are healthy, viable and disease free.  If using seeds from a previous year and the seeds look moldy, toss them.  Seed packets list the year they were produced for, and as the seed gets older, the germination rate decreases.  A simple test for viability is to place seeds in a bowl of water.  If they sink, they are still usable.  If they float, they most likely will not germinate.  For better results, only plant those that sink or alternately, increase the number of seeds that are planted if the germination rate is low. 

Seeds must remain moist so don’t let soil dry out.  Take care to not overwater.  Watering seeds from the top may dislodge the germinating seed so it is best to water from the bottom and let the water absorb into the soil. 

Place seeds in a sunny window to provide the needed 12-16 hours of sunlight.  If a grow lamp is used, the lamp should be very close to the soil.  Just like humans, plants need a resting period so it is a good practice to turn off the light at night.  Soil temperature should be 70 to 80 degrees.  Some gardeners use a heat mat to maintain soil temperature. 

Seedlings can develop a damping off fungus that causes wilt  If wilt is seen, dispose of the seedling.  Promoting good air circulation can help prevent fungus.  Most importantly, read the seed packet directions. The information it contains will help lead to success!

Happy Gardening!