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Seed Starting Success Tips

If you’re starting a new garden, one of the first skills you will want to develop is starting garden plants from seeds. Buying garden seeds and starting them yourself costs less than buying starter plants. Even more importantly, seed starting offers far more variety and flexibility in terms of plant varieties and timing. Garden centers only carry a few varieties of the most popular items. On the other hand, seed suppliers offer dozens of varieties of the most popular crops, like tomatoes, plus numerous crops that simply are not available as seedlings. Starting your own seeds also lets you determine when transplants will be available for your garden, rather than hoping the store will have what you need when you need it.

Starting seeds is not complicated. But it takes a basic level of skill to produce strong, healthy garden seedlings that will resist transplant shock and produce an abundant crop. Follow these tips to help ensure a robust start to your garden.

Start with Fresh Seeds

The seed itself makes a huge difference, and freshness is the first important component. Before purchasing seed, look on the back of the packet for the “packaged for 20xx” year. Although the seed may be a couple of years old, as long as the year stamped on the packet is current, you can be assured that the batch of seed in the packet passed the latest germination testing.

Use High-Quality Seeds

Try this experiment. Next time you go to your home improvement store or big box retailer, buy a pack of the cheapest seed you can find – let’s say Detroit Dark Red beets. Then go to an independent garden center or online to a premium seed company and buy a pack of Detroit Dark Red beets. Open both packets side by side. The cheap seed will likely be of varying sizes, possibly colors too, and may have a fair amount of chaff in with the seeds. The premium seed will likely be more uniform in size and very clean.

Next, perform a simple germination test. Keeping the two batches of seed separated, fold a sample of each into a wet paper towel then place each towel into a labeled zip-lock bag and close them. Place the bags on top of your refrigerator for a week, then open them and observe the results. Over the years, I have been more than satisfied to pay a few cents more for consistent, high-quality seed.

Pre-soak Seeds Before Planting

Anything large enough to handle individually will benefit from an overnight soak prior to sowing. This pre-soak helps to break the seed’s dormancy, and reduces the germination time by several days. My process is simple: place the seeds in a bowl and cover with tepid water. The next day, strain the seeds out of the water with a fine colander and pour them out onto a towel or coffee filter to blot the excess water. At this point the seeds are ready to sow in seed trays or directly into the garden.

Start Seeds Indoors

When you start seeds in trays indoors, you can control the germination ane early growing conditions. It leads to more rapid, uniform growth, reduces the need to thin, and eliminates weed competition. If you sow a few extras in the trays, you have the opportunity to select only the best seedlings to transplant into the garden. Then, the garden will be full of only the strong, healthy specimens because no “duds” made it that far.

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Use Soil Blocks

Soil blocks changed my outlook on seed starting. I make blocks with a specialized tool called a soil blocker from real garden soil (along with some other good ingredients), not a sterilized mix. The seedlings that come out of this system are robust and experience little to no transplant shock when planted out in the garden. This is a more advanced technique that takes even more time, but if you want the best possible outcome with the least amount of waste, it’s worth the time and effort.

Provide Bottom Heat

Most garden seeds sprout best at temperatures 68-75 degrees. Colder temperatures lead to inconsistent germination and leggy plants. The soil temperature is more important than the air temperature. Place seed starter trays on top of the refrigerator, water heater tank or above (not directly on) a radiator. You can purchase electric seed starting heat mats for this purpose as well.

Manage Humidity

Seeds occupy a shallow position in the soil, where they are susceptible to drying out. Wet-dry cycles lead to inconsistent germination and die off in young seedlings. To eliminate wet-dry cycles, cover seed starting trays with plastic until the seeds germinate. Once the seeds sprout, loosen the cover to improve air circulation. Remove the cover after the seedlings produce their second set of leaves.

Give Young Seedlings 12 to 14 Hours Light Per Day

Starting seeds indoors has a major limitation: light. Light-starved seedlings grow thin, weak stems and pale, misshapen leaves. One solution is to supply artificial light two-inches above the foliage. I inexpensive grow light on a timer. Bright, close-up light makes seed starting possible even in a closet or basement. Natural sunlight is even better. If you have a brightly lit room with south-facing windows, that is an ideal place to start seedlings.

Keep Them Moist, Not Wet

For the first week or so after germination, the plants may not need much water. An occasional mist will suffice. As transplant time approaches, seedlings may need water twice a day. Use both the soil surface feel and the weight of the tray as your guide for watering. If the surface is crusty, but the tray feels heavy, misting is probably enough. When the tray is light and the soil crusty, the plants need a thorough watering to re-hydrate the roots.

Harden Off Seedlings Before Transplanting

Transplant shock can damage or kill young seedlings if the conditions in the garden are vastly different from the environment where they’ve been growing. Gradually move the seedling trays from the protected, artificially lit indoor environment to the full sun, garden environment in the last week or two before transplanting. Begin the process by moving them to a shaded outdoor location for just an hour or two, then increase the exposure and duration incrementally each day. Be sure to closely monitor soil moisture during this time.

Start Directly In The Garden

Some crops perform best when they are sown directly in their permanent garden home. Prepare the seed bed a couple of weeks ahead to allow any weed seeds to germinate, lightly cultivate the bed immediately before planting to remove weeds. Soak the vegetable seeds for 24 hours before sowing to promote fast, uniform germination. Sow the seeds and water them in. Water lightly every day until the seeds sprout. Then gradually increase water volume and decrease frequency.

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Cover Lightly

Gardens with heavy clay soil need help. Use vermiculite or compost instead of soil to cover seeds after sowing. These lightweight, absorbent soil amendments hold moisture without hindering the young seedling’s upward progress.

Don’t Forget to Thin

Sowing seed directly in the garden demands two things: initially sowing more densely than you wish the plants to grow, and thinning the young emerging plants to the proper spacing. Neglecting the thinning part is setting yourself up for failure. Crowded plants compete for nutrients and water below ground, and sunlight above. If left in place, a thick stand of plants may not produce much. Once thinned, those remaining will grow beautifully.

Melon Mistakes

Melon season arrived on the farm last week, and it seems like it will only last another week or so. It’s a flash in the pan, but a sweet and juicy flash in the pan. I have never grown melons before this year. In the Pacific Northwest, where I learned most of my farming skills, it was difficult to grow melons because they like prolonged hot weather. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about growing melons (both cantaloupe and watermelons) this year, mostly from screwing up, so I thought I would share my screw-ups with you all so you too can learn from my mistakes.

​Our first melon harvest for market was August 9. Jackpot!

I thought any melon with orange flesh and tan, rough skin was a cantaloupe. That’s not true! Cantaloupes are a specific type of muskmelon. Other muskmelons include honeydew and Armenian cucumbers. The name refers to the fragrant odor that these melons release when ripe. Technically, the term cantaloupe refers to a specific type of muskmelon from Europe with orange flesh, but no ribs or netting. However, we have more recently accepted the term cantaloupe for all of the sweet, orange fleshed muskmelons with netting and ribs that are so popular in North America. Who knew? Not me, until I read the descriptions of muskmelons and cantaloupes in seed catalogs this winter.

​A honey rock muskmelon. We’d call this one a cantaloupe because we’re ‘mericans.

Melons, like their cousins, squash and cucumbers, have very long vines with large leaves. These plants do a great job of spreading and making a canopy of huge leaves, under which weed seeds have a difficult time germinating. Assuming that my baby melon plants would take off and out compete the weeds, I put “weeding the melons” very low on my priority list. The result? My melon patch is the weediest spot on the farm. Name the weed, and I’ve got it in my melon patch. Every time I harvest cantaloupes and watermelons, I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt. As fun as that is, it probably takes me 5 times longer to harvest melons than it would if I could actually see them sitting on the ground.

When I found this Moon & Stars watermelon amongst the weeds, I squealed with delight.

My favorite variety of watermelon is a small little yellow-fleshed watermelon called Petite Yellow. They are so sweet, and just the right size for two people to eat in one sitting. Another bonus – they are almost all flesh with very thin rinds. However, their sweet aroma and thin rinds makes them prime candidates for a late night deer snack. Just before all my Petite Yellow watermelons ripened, deer wiped them all out…ate the whole things and left only a tiny bit of rind on the ground. I managed to salvage one Yellow Petite that was well hidden under my weed canopy, and a couple more have grown since the major deer attack in mid-July, thankfully. I’m saving these little jewels to eat myself!

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A Petite Yellow watermelon that escaped the deer attack.

In mid-July after the deer attack on my Petite Yellow melons, I was gripped with fear that the deer would eat all of my melons, so I decided to start harvesting them. After all, if the deer were sniffing them out, they must be ripe, right?! Wrong. I picked two Sugar Baby watermelons and cut them open. One was completely white inside and the other was barely pink. Interestingly, they were still sweet. Not as sweet as a fully ripe melon, but still very edible. I decided to wait a couple more weeks, keep my fingers crossed that the deer would leave them alone. Luckily, the deer ignored them and I started finding ripe watermelons about two weeks ago. Of course, I had to taste test them before I brought them to market, so I didn’t begin selling any until last week. I have learned a few tips for identifying ripe melons. Watermelons have a little curly tendril that grows across the vine from their stems. When this tendril dries up and turns brown, your melon is likely ready, but you still want to look for a yellowish spot where the melon sat on the ground, and listen for a hollow sound when the melon is thumped. When all three of these signs have coincided, I have found nicely ripe melons. For cantaloupe, you can sniff the melons, and a strong sweet scent indicates they are ripe, plus they will slip right off the vine with barely any pressure. I have noticed that size doesn’t indicate ripeness; I have found large under-ripe melons, and tiny fully-ripe melons. It seems that size may have more to do with how much water the plant received than ripeness. I didn’t irrigate my melons at all, and they are smaller than average, but REALLY sweet, and still juicy. I think the lack of irrigation helped to concentrate the sugars rather than making a huge, watery melon.

​Yay! I learned to pick fully ripe watermelons! This one is a Quetzali.

Because I wait to pick my cantaloupes until they are super sweet, fragrant, and slip right off the vine, they have a very short shelf life. They seem to develop soft spots overnight. Although this makes them difficult to sell, I have found that they are still very good, and only need a little of the soft spots cut off. Even so, I haven’t been selling any of my cantaloupes that have bad soft spots. Instead, I have been eating them and giving them away to family and friends. In fact, I just cut up two of them and am trying out a recipe for melon sorbet. It calls for vodka. I’m not sure if that helps the sorbet reach the correct consistently, or it’s just to add a little livelihood to my dessert, but I didn’t question it, and I now have vodka-y, lemony, melon puree in my refrigerator cooling before I put it in my ice cream maker. You can try it out with watermelon too, or a mix of cantaloupe and watermelon. Cheers!