Starting plants Indoors for Field Production

April 18, 2017   

So, you want to start seeds for the garden or greenhouse this season. This is a great idea for so many reasons. Besides being cost-effective, starting seeds and transplanting supports crop uniformity, earlier harvests, controlled germination conditions and a more efficient use of valuable growing space.

 While starting seeds can be rewarding, it does require more attention and time. The alternative to starting seeds is buying transplants from other farmers or garden stores, which is an expensive cost that may not fit every budget. Spring is an exciting time of year, and with only weeks to spare, growers should be encouraged to start indoor seedlings. In this article, we will explain seed requirements, soil needs, transplanting and seed-starting tips for beginners.

Seed Requirements

While seeds need moisture to germinate, seedlings should not be over-watered or allowed to overheat under lights or on heat mats. Make sure once your seeds have germinated that you have your lights set to a timer that mimics natural light cycles. Too much light or heat will also damage fragile, young seedlings. While your seedlings don’t need much water, they are growing quickly and will absorb moisture quickly. Too much water can cause root rot, which means your plant is shot.

Depending on the scale of your seed starting capabilities you will have to consider how much potting soil to get and where to get it. If a couple bags of potting soil from your local hardware store will sustain your needs, great. Consider that a handful of crops will need to be transplanted from cells to larger pots before their final transplant into the soil. If you are growing a large garden or running a small business, consider buying a pallet of soil with other local growers to save on ordering and delivery costs. Deliveries of significant amounts of potting soil, compost or other organic material can become very costly. Use a potting soil from a reputable source that offers a light mix, with minimal weed contamination. Weeds in potting soil can steal nutrients from your seedlings and are a pain to keep up with.

Soil Needs and Transplanting

You do not want to leave your transplants in their cells for an extended amount of time, because it will stunt the growth of the plant; this goes for all of your seeds. Keep an eye on the seedling’s taproot or root system, and when they begin to peak out of the sides of their cell’s soil, it is time to transplant. If it is too early to plant directly into the field, these plants will require being transplanted into larger pots. Seed packets give you exact directions on when your seeds should go outside.

 Also, you want to allow your seedlings to develop enough that they have true leaves and can handle transplanting shock. Try to minimize the amount of times you transplant, as each action can open up opportunities for damage or shock to your plants. Choose a pot that allows your plant to comfortably grow until transplanting into the ground. Ideally, farmers calculate a seed’s growth timeline to match up with the last frost date.

Starting seedlings and caring for them to maturity is definitely a hands-on task. Every day your plants should be checked on to make sure these early stages of development are progressing. Traumatized or neglected seedlings will never perform as well as those cared for diligently.

Prior to the transplant date, re-familiarize yourself with your seed specifications, as they might offer transplanting dates or directions. Once you have transplanted your starts into your garden, fertilize and water plants to give them a little help, as they will be in a degree of shock after transplanting. Well transplanted crops will perk up within a day.

 Keep your plants on a constant fertilizer regiment depending on the crop’s nutrient requirements. A lot of growers use some form of a nitrogen fixer, like fish emulsion, every two weeks or so. Fruiting plants, like tomatoes, eggplants or peppers, should not be fertilized once flowers begin to develop. At this point, Nitrogen is only keeping the leaves green and growing, while what the plant is really looking for is phosphorus to help develop fruit. Many low-input operations mix biological soil amendments, like blood meal, bone meal or kelp, into their garden beds throughout the season. For this reason, when low-input operations stop using their fertilizer during flowering, they rarely spray or add any fertilizers between flowering and harvesting.

Tips for First Timers

There are a number of crops that prefer being started indoors and then transplanted into the soil later. Always make sure you read seeding directions and specifications for each crop. Plant your seeds accordingly. Onions and leeks are two crops that take over a hundred days to reach maturity. These should be your earliest seeds, because they can go into the ground as soon as frost has passed. Onions and Leeks also have a cool germination temperature requirement, so hot lights and heat mats are not at all necessary when germinating these crops. If you are strapped for space under your indoor lights, this knowledge can be useful to prioritize space for crops that require more heat and light. If you have a cold frame or hoop house, onions, leeks, collards and kale are all crops that can be started at cooler, but steady, temperatures to make more room for your needier crops. This allows seeds with hotter germination requirements, like mid-summer crops, to be kept inside, under lights, heated, while cooler weather crops, which do not require lights, can be germinated without grow lights, naturally, in a cold frame or unheated hoop house.

If you are planting flower seeds, many flowers also prefer to be started indoors and transplanted as opposed to being directly sewn into the ground. Some flowers can take as long as onions to mature and should therefore be started around the same time. But if planting a variety of flowers, your seed specifications will show you how the “days to maturation” change from flower to flower. Zinnias, for example, will probably be started with your hot weather seedlings, like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Maturation time for Zinnias can range from 60-80 days depending on the variety. Consider the last frost date for your area and plan your seed starts according to that date.

Rewards of Starting Transplants from Seed

Buying starts can be very expensive. Selling them can be very lucrative. But if planting your own garden, starting your plants from seed is an invigorating, constantly fluctuating experience. It is also much more cost-effective for commercial growers to buy seed instead of transplants. There is nothing more rewarding than starting a garden from seed and no better way to welcome spring time. Now all that’s left to do is decide what you want to eat this summer. Happy growing.

Contributed by Amanda Williams