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February 25th 2016

Seed Starting Do’s & Dont’s

Written by
Floret

Floret_Seed Starting 101-2It’s beginning. Yep. You know what I’m talking about, right?

In garages and greenhouses, in dens and on dining room tables…  It’s starting to happen.  It’s that time of year again, the annual rite of passage when gardeners stir from their winter slumber.  The morning sun peeks across the horizon a little earlier.  Mailboxes fill with seeds orders. Gardeners get antsy and start itching to dig in the dirt again. All these signs signal the official start of seed starting season!

Floret_Seed Starting 101-4While the prospect of planting in the open field is still a ways of for many parts of the country, one easy way to get a flower fix is to start some flowers from seed.  Seeds allow you to get an early start to the growing season and enable you to have access to hundreds of specialty varieties that you won’t find at your local garden center.  Plus, it’s the most inexpensive way to fill up your cutting garden, fast, with beautiful blooms.

Floret_Seed Packets-01Growing your own flowers from seed is a rewarding way to grow a bountiful cutting garden.  Those little packets are full of so much untapped potential just waiting to burst with life with a little help from you.

Starting your own seeds can be intimidating to new gardeners, but it really doesn’t have to be. One of my goals here on the blog is to provide you with information and inspiration to help you grow great flowers and hopefully dispel the notion that growing great flowers is only possible for professionals. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. You can have amazing success, even if you’ve never grown anything before!

Floret_Seed Starting 101-5So in addition to some of the tips I’m including with this post, I want to make sure you know about a couple other sources of info here on the Floret site:

-In the Floret Resources section, I have created a little Starting Seeds 101 tutorial and photo essay (be sure to click the arrows to advance the images) with some of the basics.

-In the Floret Shop, I’ve included sowing and growing instructions for dozens of my favorite flowers.  I also include a handy little seed starting card with each and every seed order we send out.

For you newbies out there I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned the hard way, during the early years of Floret. Making mistakes isn’t exactly the most fun way to learn.

There’s nothing I hate more than seeing trays of beautiful little baby flowers go south before my eyes because I overwatered.  Or underwatered.  Or got excited about transplanting and didn’t properly harden them off.  Seriously, I’ve found some pretty lame ways to waste expensive seed and lots of silly ways to kill baby plants over the years.  I hope I might save you from making at least a few of these same mistakes.  So here’s little list of some Do’s and Don’t when it comes to seed starting.  This list of quick tips is meant to complement the other resources I’ve already created, plus capture some of my greatest hits of seed misses.

Floret_Seed Starting 101-6

DO invest in basic supplies.  Unless you’ve got serious cash to burn, you don’t need to spend a fortune on fancy equipment, all the latest gardening gadgets, a monster tractor, or even a greenhouse for that matter. If you are just getting started, a few simple supplies are all you need to get you growing.  Lots of gardeners (and more flower farmers than you’d probably expect) use a basement worktable as their seed starting workspace and grow their flowers under simple shop grow lights on a homemade rack.  For seed starting, you’ll need some seed trays (or soil blockers) and clear plastic domes, some good seed starting mix, and tags.  If you can swing it, investing in a heat mat or two and some fluorescent shop lights will help tremendously. If you don’t have a local source for these basics, visit Johnny’s Selected Seeds website.

DO tamp down the soil into your containers or cell packs. Then pack it down a teeny bit more. By pressing down on the soil, you not only eliminate air pockets that little rootlets don’t like, but you also make it so much easier to remove your baby plants once they are ready to transplant.   I remember mangling a whole mess of baby snapdragons because I had been sloppy about filling the flats with the soil. When it came time to transplant, instead of popping the plants out with a nice solid chunk of soil attached, the soil separated from the roots and I ended up with a crumbly mess and traumatized plants.  

DON’T forget to moisten the seed starting mix prior to adding your seeds.  If you add your seeds to dry potting mix and then try to overhead water, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll send your seeds floating to the corners of the container. If they are really tiny like Iceland poppies or snapdragons, you’ll probably wash them away and have to start over.

DON’T start your seeds too early.  In the rush to get growing, it is easy to fall into the trap of starting all your seeds all at once. If you read the seed packets or catalog descriptions, you’ll note that it is recommended to start some slow-growing flowers earlier (10-12 weeks before your last frost) than others (4-6 weeks).  If your frost-free date isn’t until mid-May, for example, you’ll want to start your foxglove now, but hold off on fast-growing, heat loving zinnias until later.  One year I totally jumped the gun (which I am prone to do) and planted zinnias way too soon and I had plants busting out of their pots, becoming root bound because they had no where to go. They were ready to be transplanted outside, but the spring frosts hadn’t yet passed.

DO use bottom heat to get your seeds started.  It really is remarkable how much faster and how much better seeds germinate with a little heat at their feet. Propagation mats work great for smaller scale production. We’re in need of a big upgrade to special heat cable covered tables, because we start so many flats of seedlings every spring, but they mats have served us well for a very long time.

Floret_Seed Starting 101-7DO water your plants from the bottom when possible. Standard seed starting sets contain three pieces: a humidity dome, a cell pack layer with drainage holes, and a tray that serves as a liner for the cell packs. By nesting your cell packs (or whatever container you choose to use) in the waterproof tray, you can then add water to the tray which allows the soil to essentially siphon or wick up the water.  This keeps water off of your leaves, helps prevent problems with fungus and disease, plus it focuses water where it is needed most, at the root level.

DON’T underestimate the amount of light tiny plants need to grow. If you use fluorescent shop lights, be sure to adjust them so that they are no more than three inches above the tops of your plants.  When I was a newbie, this was not intuitive to me. At all. As a result, I grew lots of gangly, leggy plants because they weren’t getting enough light. The bulbs were simply way too far away from the foliage canopy. Once  I realized my mistake, I adjusted the lights and poof, my plants grew so much better. Nice and straight with strong stems.

DO harden off your plants before you transplant them.  I am embarrassed to tell you how many plants I fried because I didn’t do this key step.  In my excitement to transplant the starts into the field, I didn’t give them any chance to acclimate to their new outside environment.  Think about it: you nurture and shelter and baby the plant in a cozy, warm, temperature-controlled environment for weeks, or months. You can’t just throw them in the cold ground without even a minute to get used to full sunlight, wind and temperature swings in the open garden.  You have to ease them into it for a stress-free experience.

DON’T beat yourself up if you make mistakes.  Unless you are super lucky or already have a seriously magical natural green thumb, you’re probably going to make a few mistakes your first time time starting seeds. $#!+ happens.  It’s ok.  You’re sure to make far fewer mistakes than I did during the early days, but just know that goof ups are inevitable.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some suggestions of some great flowers you can start early indoors. Happy seeds starting season!

*One final little note– if you found this post or other information in our special February “Blog Blizzard” helpful, I hope you’ll take a few seconds to vote for us.  Floret is one of 10 finalists for Better Homes and Gardens’ Blogger Awards.   From now through March 7,  anyone can vote for their favorite blogs in each of four different categories.

The contest allows you to vote once per day.  I’d be honored to have your vote! 

 

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VOTE NOW

41 Comments

  1. Kylie Dotts on

    Thanks so much for what you said about not spending a fortune on fancy equipment and getting a few simple supplies instead. We moved into our home a few years ago and I have wanted to put a flower garden in for so long! I wanted to buy seed for flowers instead of flowers themselves but wasn’t sure if I would need new gardening tools or not until now! I’ll be sure to make sure I have the basic tools I’ll need and then get to having a wonderful flower garden!
    http://www.vermontwildflowerfarm.com/wildflower-seed-wildflower-mixes.html

    Reply
  2. pamela eberhard on

    Hi
    Can you please explain how you do this??
    Thanks so much
    Pam
    DO harden off your plants before you transplant them

    Reply
  3. Spring Garden Planning – We Shine Forth- A blog about life. love. and the pursuit of happiness on

    […] Prepare your area and find organize your supplies. Fill tray cells and pre moisten the soil. Plant seeds and allow to grow according to seed requirements. See, it is easy! For more tips and resources check out the Floret Flowers resources. Floret Flowers is a wonderful farm in Western Washington and they’ve got a wealth of growing resources on their website and blog. Check out the seed starting 101 article here. And their seed starting do and don’t article here. […]

    Reply
  4. Madeline on

    This is so, so encouraging and helpful!! Can’t wait to grow bigger and better this year:)

    Reply
  5. Lourdes on

    I’m looking forward to planting all my Floret seeds for the first time this year. Wish me luck!!

    Reply
  6. Leslie Emanuels on

    To all you seedling maverics:
    I am watering from the bottom up for the first time. Will they look wet? If they look wet should I drain out the extra water? Thanks!

    Reply
  7. Shelly on

    This post was so helpful. Thank you for writing it.

    Reply
  8. Joan on

    I’m all about this kind of voting! Thanks for this list of helpful do’s and dont’s. Even after 6 years of starting seeds I still make mistakes (not hardening off–guilty!) and it’s nice to be reminded of the basics. Good luck to all the seed-starters out there!

    Reply
  9. Shyla on

    Thank-you for this! This is my first year doing the majority of my flowers on my own from seed starts and I am yearning for advice! I’d love to hear any advice on simply starting by a window!

    Thanks for posting your nomination! I voted! Would love to see you win!

    Reply
  10. Stephanie on

    Thanks again for sharing Erin! I’ve never started seeds indoors, I usually try to pick varieties that can be direct sown and roll the dice. These are some great tips!

    Reply
  11. Joanna on

    When do you start your annuals? Do you start them super duper early… like in fall?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  12. Danielle Condrati Grillo on

    Thank you so much for the tips! I so excited to see you in SPRING FLOWER FARMING INTENSIVE II!!!!!

    Reply
  13. Bibi on

    Erin, you go our vote! Great job of instructing, and how many of us have needed those little tips to guide us, your very timely with your blog posts! Thanks!

    Reply
  14. Alyssa on

    Soooo helpful! I recently got really discouraged after watching all my seeds pop up into beautiful little buddies, then one day they all tipped over and withered up.. I’m starting over with better lighting, air flow, and I’m experimenting with a less-frequent watering schedule. We’ll see how it goes…

    I notice my seedling are really prone to getting mold around the soil, so I’m getting nervous about watering too much… do you have any recommendations or tips for knowing how often to water? I’ve also added a fan to the room…

    Thanks for this, and ALL, your blog posts.

    Reply
  15. Nancy on

    Voted!! Love your blog, and your seeds, aprons, snips… I am a walking Floret wanna-be! I just wish I was even 1/10th as talented. Oh well, the world needs people who need help :) Thanks for all the info you put out there, it is greatly appreciated.

    Reply
  16. Linda Q on

    I love my heat mat-zinnias germinate in just 2 days with bottom heat!
    One mistake I made last year with succession planting was not planting soon enough after the first wave and had flowers just starting to bloom when the fall frost hit…
    You did not touch on the subject of potting soil for seedlings-there are so many kinds on the market for those of use who do not have the capabilities to make their own which I’m sure you do. Can you recommend the type of potting soil which is best for seedlings? So many on the market have literally chunks of wood in the mix!

    Reply
  17. Raeann D. on

    I am in a quandary every year as to what type of soil to start my seeds in – “potting mix” , “seed starting mix” , ” garden mix”? I’ve tried most with mixed results. Some are so coarse with chunks of bark, while others are so full of perlite or vermiculite I wonder if there is anything nourishing in there! I have even used my own screened compost but am concerned it burns the baby plants, or they don’t need all that food just yet and I am wasting my precious compost which could be used later when they are in the ground. I have even brought home truck loads of different types of soils from the place near us. Any suggestions? :-)

    Reply
    • Kate on

      I’m definitely no expert, but after 3 years of making my own seed starting mix, this year I bought a bag of Burpee’s Organic Eco-Friendly seed starting mix on impulse (it was on sale, and I was impatient to get seeds in the ground). So far, my seedlings LOVE it. I’ve had way less trouble with mold/fungus under my domes, it’s springy and light (made of coconut coir) and inexpensive. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth going back to blending peat/vermiculite/homemade compost like I have in previous years. I think I’ll save the effort for my planting beds! :)

  18. Anna on

    Thank you so much!! Your posts are beyond helpful for a rookie like me :)

    Reply
  19. brandee Schman on

    I need serious help! I can not get Bupuleurum to grow. I have tried starting it in the greenhouses and I have tried to direct sow. I just don’t know what I am doing wrong. I live in northern Michigan. Any advice would be helpful. You guys are the best and you got my vote!!
    Thanks Brandee

    Reply
  20. Liz on

    And yes I voted for you!

    Reply
  21. Liz on

    I believe growing flowers from seed is absolutely one of the most incredible and thrilling experiences one can do! Thanks for your great tips! I just recently did the overhead watering with poppies…well that didn’t go well and won’t be doing that again. I am so thankful for all your time, energy, effort and superb blogs!!!

    Reply
  22. Killoran on

    Good timing! It’s too wet in the garden to do anything at all (under INCHES of water) so I was getting all bummed out. Seed-starting time! It’s going to be trickier with a toddler who can stand and climb and grab things, but last year, I put the trays of seedlings on the table over the baseboard heater and it worked a treat!

    Reply
  23. Tracey on

    Floret , you are my Santa Claus!!!!!! Each morning a New Blog and it’s a great start to my day. In Australia we are coming into Autumn .Thankyou ‘Owls Acre Seed U.K.’ Prompt ,friendly ,service and cannot wait to put my sweet peas in . Have a smiling day today. PS come on everyone ,One Vote for Floret Each Day !!!
    Tatts.com

    Reply
  24. pam on

    Thank you, Thank you! Where do you find the time? All your posts have been helpful beyond words.

    Reply
  25. Shannon Kubenez on

    Such great information! Thank you for sharing, on my way to vote now!

    Reply
  26. Rachel Meriwether on

    Love, love, love your blog!! Thank you for all the information. One quick question, do you make the effort to see that your light are full spectrum or do you think just regular florescent lights are ok?

    Reply
  27. Amy on

    Thank you for your generous information and you get my vote any day!

    Reply
  28. Jenny Rae on

    I hope you win Erin!!! You do deserve it. I often refer to your blog as my bible, repeatedly referencing your blog posts even from years ago! I even love seeing how your blog has grown as your business has. I just wrote a blog post last night and it took me a few hours- even after I already had organized the photos. I give you lots of props, thank you x181929220!!

    Reply
  29. Kathy on

    Thank you again for an information-packed post. When I teach gardening classes and the subject of hardening off comes up, I compare it to a person wanting to get a tan in early summer. Spending an entire day outside in the sun, without protection, after being cooped up all winter, could result in a serious sunburn. A gradual approach makes much more sense. The same goes for plants!

    Reply
    • Floret on

      Great analogy!

  30. Anna on

    This is great! Thanks so much! I’m starting super small (literally a handful of plants getting started as seeds in pots on my windowsill) so some of these things don’t apply to me but some of these tips are super helpful!

    Reply
  31. Megan on

    Very timely! I forget how fast my trays dry out, so I get crispy plant babies for a whole other reason :( Resolved to set reminders in my phone so I don’t forget to check on them.

    Reply
  32. Emily on

    I’ve been following along all month and this information is so helpful! Thank you for that! What I’m wondering is, could I use some of the “heat tape” that I use to keep my water pipes from freezing on top of a table with plastic over it as a large heat mat?

    Reply
  33. Sarah on

    Thank you so very much for this post! First time growing from seed this year so your guidance couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Can’t wait to get started with my floret seeds.

    Reply
  34. Elizabeth on

    Do you still use fluorescent lights for your seeds or do you just have them in your greenhouse with sunlight?

    Reply
    • Cali Walters on

      I would like to know this as well please :)

  35. Lynn on

    As usual, you’re my lunch time learning time, and I’ll go home and re-read this evening :) Aaaaannnd, I’ve already voted today! This is wonderful information that I’m soaking in – I’ve gardened for years, but this is the first year for actual flower farming, and I love how much you’ve shared – THANK YOU!! Would be wonderful if you continued the “Blizzard” thru March – hey, it’s not spring yet!! Again, thank you for your generosity in sharing information, it’s so invaluable.

    Reply
  36. Genevieve Sauve on

    Wonderful, fun and interesting blog, packed with loads of great information, insight and knowledge! Thanks Floret.

    Reply
  37. Amy Rodrigues on

    Thank you so much for all the information you provide.

    Reply

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