Tag Archive | seed starting

Basement Nursery

In an effort to improve seedling production in the spring, you might consider moving your seedlings from a sunny window (that may or may not be sunny every day) to an area where you can install fluorescent lights. Moving seedlings into an environment where the light can be controlled, and the day and night temperatures won’t fluctuate wildly, cries out for a heated basement. Even the sunniest windows rarely offer more than a few hours of really bright light each day, and that doesn’t count the losses because of cloudy days or a light covering of dust or dirt on the window glass.

dbe19db223bbfa992e50b92fe1b12023--a-frame-plant-standsBut even with the fluorescent lights on for 18 hours, seedlings don’t really get enough light. While a fluorescent light looks bright to us, it is a poor substitute to a seedling expecting to bask in the sun. To provide enough light, use two 4-foot-long, two-bulb shop fixtures (available at any hardware store), suspended just 2 to 6 inches above the seedlings.

Special grow lights aren’t magic. Often, there is just a blue coating on the inside of the tube. The overall amount of light is reduced, and the seedlings think they have sunglasses on. A mix of warm white and cool white tubes will give the right kind of light, and more of it.

A small fan is needed nearby to move the air, helping to prevent fungus diseases and to flex those little seedling stems, enabling them to grow stronger and thicker (just like going to the gym). But don’t get carried away trying to make little Arnold Schwarzenpeppers.

Most seedlings like it comfy — temperatures in the 60s and room to grow. If they are too crowded, or if that furnace is overheating them, they will become stretched and spindly. Perhaps they are trying to grow up quickly and get away!

Buy your seeds early while there are lots of choices, but don’t start them too early. Look on each package for the right timing, and mark your calendar.

Earlier posts on seed starting:






Seed Starting

Seeds are amazing. These small packages contain everything needed to make a whole plant, and many also contain tiny sensors to tell them if the time is ripe for germination. Among those sensors is phytochrome, a pigment that is sensitive to certain wavelengths of red light.

Who cares? You will if you sow these seeds and cover them with soil. Seeds that need light, and often they are smaller seeds, will not germinate if they are buried too deeply. When a seed is struck by sunlight (or light from a regular incandescent bulb), the phytochrome changes. If the seed has warmth, moisture, and oxygen, the change in the phytochrome breaks the seed’s dormancy and allows germination. If the environment is not to the seed’s liking, the phytochrome slowly changes back and the seed waits for another blast of light when conditions are better.

Among seeds that need light to germinate are ageratum, California poppy, gaillardia, coleus, columbine, love-in-a-mist, snapdragon, Shasta daisy, strawflower, sweet alyssum, and sweet rocket. You can’t tell by looking, so following seed-package instructions is always a good idea.


Seeds vary in the texture and thickness of their seed coat, which affects how fast water can penetrate. The presence of water in turn allows germination.

Some plants, among them flowers like morning glory, lupine, and moonflowers, have rather thick seed coats. To get them going, suppliers often recommend that they be scarified — nicked, scraped, or chipped — to create tiny breaks in the seed coat. With these cracks, moisture can penetrate easily and the plant will spring to life more quickly.

What happens if there’s no human around to do this job? Nature has methods, but they take longer. Thick seed coats are eventually worn away by soil fungi, bacteria, the elements, or a trip through the digestive system of a bird or other animal.


Good seed germination depends on more than adequate light and moisture. It’s also affected by soil temperature.

Different plants have different needs in the temperature department, but almost all of them will do okay at 70º to 75ºF.

Because cold tap water can lower the temperature considerably, use tepid. And don’t forget that temperatures warm enough to keep the soil in the 70s will probably make the air above the soil too warm for the seedlings when they do come up. The solution? Either supply bottom heat only, using a gardener’s heat mat or heating cable, or put the flats on top of the fridge until about half of the seeds have sprouted and then move them to the windowsill.

Seed Storage

Chances are good you will have leftover seeds when you’re done planting annuals. Not all of them are worth saving; asters and larkspurs, for instance have very short storage lives. But most will be perfectly usable next year if they are stored dry, cool, and dark.

Date each packet and reseal it with tape. Put the packets in a glass jar with a screw cap, or in a thick-plastic freezer-storage bag. Put the jar or bag in a cool place or in the freezer (away from the coils if it a self-defrosting model). When you’re ready to use the frozen seeds, remove the packets from the jar or bag and spread them out flat before letting them thaw, so they don’t get wet from condensation.

A few seeds will die, no matter how carefully they are stored, so plant saved seed a little more thickly to allow for the reduced germination rate.

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

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.  

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 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.

Experiences with Growing Onions


Rich Fischer with his bountiful crop of onions this year!

OCMGA has a diverse group of gardeners, many of whom are vegetable gardeners. I am very passionate about growing vegetables and this blog update shares my experiences with growing onions. I have been growing onions for many years. Initially I was planting onion sets. Sets work, but the resulting fruit is usually on the small side.  Then I had an awakening. I was fortunate to hear Richard Zontag, president of Jung seed Company, speak at the very first OCMGA Garden Expectations conference many years ago. Mr. Zontag told me that onion plants perform much better than sets. Since then I have been using onion plants with better results. I order the plants from Jung’s catalog in January and they arrive about mid-May just in time for planting. They come in a bundle of 60 or more plants.

This year just for fun I tried something different. I ordered a packet of Red Zepplin onion seeds from Jung’s and started them indoors late-March along with my tomatoes and peppers. The little bitty onion sprouts looked so small and wispy like hair. I did not give them much hope, but planted them in the garden mid-May anyway. OMG! Was I ever surprised at harvest time. These little bitty hairs grew into the best looking onions I have ever seen.   Maybe it is a one-off fluke. But I was so impressed with the results that I thought I’d share my experiment with my fellow gardeners who might want to try starting onions from seed for their vegetable garden.

Next year I am going start Copra onions from seed hoping to get a similar excellent result.

Written by Rich Fischer

Posted by Vicki

How much longer must we wait to start planting outside?

While northern Outagamie County is in zone 4b of the USDA Hardiness Zone map, the southern region of the County has been designated zone 5a. The last spring killing frost in southern Outagamie County typically occurs from May 3-9, while those in the northern region of the county typically see the last frost from May 10-16. With a growing season of barely 5 months, there isn’t much time to waste. The first fall frost in northern Outagamie County typically occurs from September 27-October 3, while the southern region of the county will typically not see its first frost until October 4-10. Many (those of us who neglected to get our own seeds started) will be looking for seedlings to get a head start, rather than planting seeds. We’d recommend planning to visit the annual Outagamie County Master Gardeners plant sale early on Saturday, May 16th.


posted by Sue

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