Tag Archive | propagation

Seed Starting 101

By Tammy Borden

I am continually amazed by the miracle of germination. The thought of a shriveled up seed, some the size of a grain of salt, eventually becoming a lush mass of blooming beauty never ceases to fascinate me.

MEN-FM12-seed-starting-1While there are some basics to starting your own seeds, there is too much information than can be shared in this article. If you really want to get serious about starting seeds I suggest getting a book on plant propagation. While seed packets share important information on planting depth and germination time, there are often helpful hints that can be shared about specific cultivars that can make your plantings more successful.

For example: Did you know that morning glory and sweet pea seeds should NOT be handled with care? To help them germinate it’s recommended that you scrape the seeds with sandpaper or even nick them with a knife. If that’s not enough, it should be followed up by an overnight soak in lukewarm water before finally planting them in the soil. Stir in some eye of newt and you’re done! Well, okay, maybe not that last part. But it’s these types of specific instructions and tips that a good propagation book can offer.

Not all seeds require such techniques; in fact, most seeds are pretty straight forward. Here are some basics:

Materials and Supplies

␣␣Seed starting mix (Generally, do not use regular potting soil. Seeds prefer a lighter mix to get started. Peat pellets are also an option.)

␣␣Light (TIP: It’s not necessary to spend a lot on expensive grow lights. Research has shown that a few bright standard fluorescent shop lights work just as well.)[Note: to make your own grow light, see our blog post of January 26, 2016].

␣␣Seedling Containers/Trays (For large quantity plantings, start by seeding a large tray and transplanting the seedlings to individual cells later. If you’re only planting a couple dozen plants you can plant in individual cells right away. TIP: Some plants like Nasturtium and Zinnia do not like to have their roots disturbed and prefer individual cells or peat pots, so check in your propagation book for the best method.)

␣␣Clear Cover/Dome (If you don’t get a clear “greenhouse” dome with your trays, simply use plastic wrap. The key is to let light in while keeping moisture in too.

␣␣Heating Mats (Specific heating mats for starting seeds are available, but expensive. TIP: I have had great success using an old electric blanket with a temperature control set low – just put a shower curtain between the blanket and seedlings to avoid getting it wet. I used a candy thermometer to monitor temperatures and kept the temperature around 70-75 degrees.)

Plant Markers (TIP: Cut up mini blinds and a Sharpie work great. So do popsicle sticks and plastic knives.)

Getting Started:

1. Moisten your soil mix and place it in your choice of container. Mark each container with the plant name and date of planting.

2. Following the seed packet instructions, plant your seeds at the recommended depth. For some seeds like Impatiens, this just means pressing them onto the surface of the soil because they need light to germinate. For smaller seeds I generally plant 3-4 per cell. For larger seeds like Nasturtiums I only plant 1-2.

3. Cover the trays with a clear covering and place on top of your heat mat. Some seeds may not need as much heat to germinate, but some plants, like peppers, will struggle to break the ground without it. Check your packet instructions and plant propagation book.

4. Let there be light! Provide lots of bright light for your plants and wait for them to sprout. While some seeds planted beneath the soil surface do not require light to germinate, I have found that it didn’t hurt, and provided some ambient heat. Generally, keep the light close to the plants, but not touching.

Keep record of your plantings in a notebook and mark when you should expect to see sprouts. Note what things seemed to work well and what didn’t so that next year, you’ll remember that you had better success planting your Hyacinth Beans in plain old potting soil than you did in the seed starting mix, as I did. Upon seeing the first sign of sprouts you should definitely get the trays under bright light. It is not necessary to give the plants a dark period if you don’t want to. It is fine to just leave the lights on them continuously.

Once the seeds have sprouted, you can remove the clear covering to allow air flow. When the first set of true leaves appear place a fan to blow on them gently and help them strengthen their stems. Keep the seedlings moist by watering from the bottom and allowing the soil to soak it up, but don’t over water. For instance, tomatoes like to dry out a little bit between waterings. Over watering is usually the biggest mistake, putting added stress on tender seedlings, plus it can cause mold to grow and provide an atmosphere for diseases like damping off.

Once you have nurtured your seedlings to the point where they’re ready for the outdoors, begin to “harden” them off. What this means is slowly introducing them to their new environment. This can be done by bringing them outside during the day in a protected area and back inside at night when temperatures dip lower for a few days or so. The attempt here is to try to avoid shock when transfer- ring from their controlled environment to the unpredictable mood swings of a Wisconsin spring. Eventually, they will accustom themselves to the new climate and they will be ready for planting outdoors once the chance of frost has passed.

Good luck!


Light for Indoor Seed Starting

Almost every day a new seed or garden catalog arrives in the mailbox, which allows you to think beyond the snow outside your window. Many of us already have light systems in place to allow early seed starting but, if you’ve been scared away by the cost of the lights you find in catalogs, you may want to consider building your own.

Christy Marsden, Rock County UW-Extension Horticulture Educator, has put together instructions to create your own light system for considerably less cost than what you find in the stores. From the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Master Gardener “Volunteer Vibe”:

Expert’s Tip: Building a Light System for Indoor Seed Starting

Christy Marsden, Rock County UW-Extension Horticulture Educator

Seedlings require 10-14 hours of light per day for optimal growth. Building a simple light system can provide enough light to produce robust, healthy seedlings any time of the year with minimal cost.

A note about bulb choice: Light contains a spectrum of colors. Different light sources produce different spectrums of color, which makes bulb choice important. While plants utilize all colors, blue and red wave lengths are critical for photosynthesis. Fluorescent bulbs provide the best levels of blue and red light for home-owner indoor plant growth. Furthermore, lower heat output means bulbs can be placed closer to the plants without the danger of burning leaves. Cool-white bulbs work better than daylight, warm-white, or white bulbs. Specialized “full-spectrum” tubes for plant growth produce the proper levels of blue and red light, but can be expensive. Using a ratio of 1 specialized to 2 cool-white bulbs works just as well and saves money. Furthermore, fluorescent bulbs are preferred over incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs do not produce enough blue light, are expensive to run, and can produce damaging levels of heat.

Supplies Needed:

  • Shop light fixture for 32-watt T-8 fluorescent bulbs
  • (2) T-8 32-watt fluorescent bulbs, cool-white or cool-white and specialized plant growth
  • 10 feet of 1.5” PVC pipe. Any width above 1.5” will work – just be consistent with joints sizes
  • (2) 1.5” slip tee
  • (2) 1.5” 90˚ elbow
  • (4) 1.5” end cap
  • Extra chain and hooks for shop light

Cut the PVC pipe into the following pieces:

  • (1) 52”
  • (2) 18”
  • (4) 8”

Put the pieces together to create the following structure. With the extra chain, you can place the light within a few inches of the plants canopy and move the light upwards as the plants grow.  

lightstd  1f4a422376e37289354ecf718d8030ed
 img_growing_light_bank PVCcomplete

Note from Vicki:  I have open beams in my basement and was able to hang a light from chains fixed to one of the beams. With a table directly below the light, and chains that are long enough to allow you to move the light up and down, you can accomplish this without the need to build a frame.

Seed Starting Tips

It’s time to start thinking about seeds!  Does your basement look like mine?  Time to start getting your seed starting area in shape so that you are ready in just a few short weeks to start planting.  Start by doing some general cleaning, removing debris, sweeping up old soil, and tossing cracked pots.  I didn’t do a good job of cleaning out old pots last year when I transplanted.  Haul those over to your basement sink and fill it up with hot, soapy water.  I use a bottle scrubber to get the loose dirt off.  Once they are clean, rinse out your sink, fill it up again, and put a few splashes of bleach.  I let my pots soak a good 30 minutes.  Don’t want any fungus to dampen off your new little transplants.  Check your lights to see that they are in good working order.  Check your heating pads to make sure they still work.  Make sure you still have the extension cords, power strips, and timers available.   Buy fresh potting mix.  I dump all left over bags of potting mix in the garden at the end of each season. It’s not usually that much, a little in each bag.  I like to start things out fresh each year.  Check over your pots to see if you have all the sizes and styles you need.  You can grow seeds in just about any kind of container as long as you provide drainage. I try to recycle a lot of my containers so my table is usually filled with a mish mash of colors, sizes, and shapes.  It all works out in the end.  Once you have everything ready to go, now the fun begins…selecting your seeds!

Written by Jaimie

Posted by Rachel


Fellow gardeners:
What do you do on a dreary night while you are waiting for the snow to fall and you have a sudden urge to garden? Propagate your houseplants!  For those who have never tried it, it’s easier than you think.  Not many supplies are needed to accomplish the task.  First pick out your plant.  I’m using an African Violet, but you can use many different types of houseplants for this process.  You will need root starter, potting mix, small containers with holes on the bottom, room temperature water, a pie tin, and a razor blade.  Start by cutting off healthy looking leaves.  I’m cutting them to near the base of the plant.  I’ll then use my razor blade to make a nicer cut.  If you are using large leaves, you’ll need to trim those back too.  They won’t look pretty but it allows the leave to focus on root growth instead of maintaining the leaf structure.  Place soil in shallow containers with holes on the bottom.  Use the handle of a spoon to make a small hole in the soil.  Dunk the cut end of the leaf in the root starter and place in the hole in the soil.  This prevents the root starter from coming off if you push it directly into the soil.   Set your container in the pie tin that has room temperature water in the bottom so that the soil can draw up the water naturally.  Let it soak up the water for about 10 minutes.  Adjust the leaves a little to ensure that they are secure in the soil.  Place somewhere out of direct light.  These little leaves are in shock and need to be left alone for a while.  Don’t let the soil dry out.  Resist the urge to tug on a leaf to see if it is rooted yet.  You’ll break off the new roots.  A better indicator is if you see a new bud coming out.  This could take a few weeks so be patient.  It’s winter, what else is there to do but watch for a bud, right? I do this process each time I get a new African Violet.  I start three new leaves and usually get at least one to grow.  My odds are maybe not so great but I usually forget to water the new plants somewhere along the way so factor in some casualties.  Therefore, I consider 33% a success and get a free plant out of it.  Good luck with your propagation!
Written by Jaime
Posted by Rachel