By now a few of your seeds are bound to have sprouted. The next step in healthy seedling growth is to move them to a direct lighting source immediately. You could drop a significant amount of seed money on a fancy grow light system, but in my experience plant specific lighting isn't necessary. If you are starting a very small amount of seedlings and you have a window facing due south, you could get away with growing seedlings with only natural light. Last year, I had more window sill than grow light space so many of my seedlings spent time of the window sill. Our 7 foot window faced directly south, and the pots were placed directly up against the glass. The growth was acceptable, but the pots had to be directly up against the glass. The second row of seedlings never did a well, and anything on a plant stand or table beside the window sill got unacceptably spindly very quickly. Our window was completely unobstructed (a rarity in the city) and got a full 8 hours of direct sunlight. If you are dealing with less than optimal natural lighting conditions, I recommend using artificial light.
Grow Light Set Up:
My first grow light was in the closet of a studio apartment in Philadelphia. I had a 4' shop light suspended from the top sweater shelf, and a tray of seedlings on the lower sweater shelf. Take away the sweaters, and it was a pretty good system, and the basis of all my grow light set ups to follow.
My most successful system consisted of 3 lights, suspended by strings from the cellar ceiling, and hanging side by side over a table. Side by side fixtures provide enough light for a whole half sheet pan of seedlings. When the lights were not in use, I shortened the strings, so the fixtures were tucked up in the floor joists above.
I use two cool white florescent bulbs in each fixture. I've read that a combination of one cool, and one warm white bulb per fixture works well too, but I've never tried it. The point is, you do not need special plant bulbs. Buy an inexpensive bulb, and replace it every year.
Light Height: Shop lights come with an S hook, and chain. By leaving most of the length of chain free, you can easily move the light up and down as the seedlings grow. The leaves of the seedlings should be as close to the bulb as possible, without actually touching. A 4' light seems like a ton of growing space, but for best results keep the plants directly under the bulbs. Its hard to resist the temptation to squeeze one more pot in along the edge, but you will soon find that seedling straining to reach the light. You will quickly see how seedlings respond to light location, and can adjust accordingly. If you do not have space for more lights, you can keep the light on 24 hours a day and switch two shifts of seedlings under them. Otherwise, seedlings need 16 hours of light per day. Be sure to allow them the luxury of rest time in darkness. Plants need that down time to turn all the light into food. My lights are on a timer, so I never have to remember to turn lights on or off.
The flickr pool is growing steadily. Please show off your lighting set up, and seedlings. Be sure to share a link to your seed starting blog posts.
Its finally time. The preparations are made, now we can plant some seed. Seed planting so simple, it can happen by accident. We want to eliminate as many variable as possible to achieve robust seedlings.
First, evenly moisten the seed starting mix. It takes a little while for the mix to absorb the water, give it a few stirs until it is evenly moist and clumpy, but not soaking.
Label the pot with the name of the seed you are planting, and the date you are planting it. The date is important so you know when to give up on dud seeds. I have used many labeling systems. Labeling the container has worked the best for me so far. Even permeant marker can fade away in the sun, so I position the pots with the label on the shady side when they are out to harden off.
Be sure to poke, or cut, a few holes in the bottom of the pots. When you're watering 40-50 plants at a time its tough to get just the right amount in each pot. Its important that the pots can drain.
Fill each pot with seed starting mix. Make sure there are no big air spaces, but do not pack it down.
Use the handle of a spoon, or your finger tip to press a small hole into the seed starting mix. Most seeds should be planted at the same depth as their diameter, while others are just placed on top of the soil, read the back of the seed pack for planting depth. Most common vegetable plants will sprout even if planted a bit too deep, or shallow. If you are growing something a bit more unusual, I recommend the The New Seed Starting Handbook by Nancy Bubel, for tips on getting finicky seeds to sprout.
Drop the seed into the hole, and cover it with seed starting mix. If my seeds are a few years old, I plant 3-4 seeds and thin multiple sprouts. If your seeds are new, plant two. I make one hole for each seed. When you are thinning out seedlings, it lessens the chances of pulling all the seedlings out at once, because their roots are intertwined.
Place the pots on a tray, and the tray on a heat mat. If you don't have a heat mat, put the pots in a warm, draft free spot. If your stove has a pilot light that continually warms the surface, that is a good spot, or on top of the refrigerator.
Cover the pots with a layer of plastic wrap to keep the moisture in, until they sprout. I keep my heat mat in the kitchen, so the second I see a sprout I can move it to the grow lights in the cellar.
As soon as you see this (above), move the pot to the light. Don't wait for leaves. The heat mat has done its job, and seedlings get spindly fast.
There is an old rule of thumb that you should plant peas on Saint Patrick's Day, and I have always done that (2012, 2011) more or less. So it is not unusual that I went to the farm last weekend for the soul purpose of pea planting. I called a friend, she didn't seem convinced that it was time to plant peas, and was a little miffed that I would make her feel behind in her pea planting, as she was on vacation. I stopped by the greenhouse to buy some pea seeds. The cashier asked if I thought it wasn't too cold to plant peas, long winter and all. Still unfazed, I started dragging tools out of the shed. The first 20 feet or so went just fine, until I came to a patch where the resounding of the hammer, bouncing off of a fence post that would not budge, came reverberating back to me from all sides. I move the post a few inches and try again. Same thing. Move it again. Yes, it was ice, not a rock, ICE. Some might admit defeat at this point, realize that it was in fact too early to plant, and go back in the house to drink coffee and read the Wall Street Journal lifestyle sections. Not me. I live 200 miles from my garden, and have a tight schedule of birthday parties and out of town guests between now and Easter. Those peas were going in the ground!
I finished putting up my little pea trellis, such as it was, scratched a furrow through the ice and planted the peas. Assuming the peas come up, and the rabbits don't eat them (see below), I'm going to call it a success. I plant 4, 35 foot rows of peas, only about 10 feet was still frozen.
I tamed the wilderness, ransacked some weeds, and restored gridded order to natural chaos, yet only took one photo of the pea planting, so I'll share a few others.
The first baseball game of spring. Its never to early to start bickering over the location of the foul lines.
The rabbits ate all of the bark off of my pussy willow (shakes fist at sky). Last year, they stripped the bottom two branches, the snow must have been deeper this year and they must has been desperate, they ate it off of the rosebush too!
Hopefully, the blooms are a good sign it will recover.
I love seed starting, but I dislike its product heavy nature. I reuse yogurt containers as pots, use a spoon as a shovel, and save seeds, so I don't have to spend money on things that should be free. Seed starting mix is the one sticking point.
Why do we need a special mix? I would argue that you don't. You could go out back, dig up some dirt and plop it in a cup. Something would probably grow (though it might be a weed), but the failure rate would be higher than if you purchased (or made) a specific mix. Unfortunately, I don't know of any free sources of peat, perlite or vermiculite, or I would be using them.
Compost - adds volume and feeds your seedlings in a slow steady sort of way, that will ease their transition into the garden.
Perlite - This stuff looks like someone pulverized a styrofoam cooler. It is actually a mined volcanic rock that is heated to the point the is expands into the product used by gardeners. It is very light weight and prevents compaction.
Vermiculite - When we were measuring out the vermiculite my son kept asking me if it was cat litter. It isn't, but like cat little is sucks up the water there fore retaining moisture in the mix.
Peat Moss - A light weight, relatively fast draining filler. I'm feeling a bit guilty about using peat moss. It is not sustainable. Coir is possibly a more sustainable alternative to peat moss in this situation, but it is not readily available where I live. Coir also holds more moisture, which can increase the likelihood of dampening off. Given the choice of using either a chemical free, non sustainable product (peat moss), or using a chemical added, non sustainable product (big box bagged seed starting mix), I chose the peat.
Recipes such as this are all over the internet (I didn't make it up). It can be made without the compost, and peat moss and coir are more or less interchangeable.