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February 22nd 2019

It’s seed starting time!

Written by
Floret

Every year around mid February, I am ready for winter to be over and start longing to get my hands dirty and to dig in the soil again. While most of the field work is still several weeks away, there is plenty to do in preparation for the season ahead. At the top of the late winter to-do list: sow seeds.

Starting your own seeds is a great way to get a jump on the season. It also gives you access to hundreds of specialty flowers that you won’t find at your local nursery or big box store. Plus, it is the most affordable way to fill a garden fast.

Holding seedlings in front of Floret greenhouseI start roughly 90 percent of my seeds inside the greenhouse. If you don’t have a greenhouse, don’t worry. A simple wire rack rigged with lights will work just fine. The first few years I grew flowers, I didn’t have a greenhouse and I started all of my seeds in the basement, on shelves, under lights. It was easy, inexpensive and a great way to grow lots of plants in a small space.

Starting seeds indoors allows me to transplant much larger, more established plants into the field once the weather has warmed. Larger plants have a better chance of contending with weed and insect pressure.

Trays of flower seedlings at FloretI’ve learned a lot about seed starting over the years, mostly through killing a lot of baby plants. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing trays of beautiful little baby flowers go downhill before my eyes because I overwatered, underwatered, or got too excited about transplanting and didn’t properly harden them off.

Learning the hard way isn’t the most fun way to start seeds, so hopefully this post will help you avoid discouraging mistakes. The following is a quick list of tips meant to compliment other seed starting resources we’ve created.

Trays of Floret seedsAfter filling your trays or containers with soil, be sure to lightly tap them on a hard surface so that the soil settles, eliminating any air pockets. Add any additional soil needed to fill all of the cells or containers to the top. 

For many years I used regular potting mix to cover the seeds in their trays. But I found that if the soil dried out it formed a crust on the top of the tray which inhibited growth and made it harder for the little seedlings to push up through the surface once they germinated. I switched to dusting newly sown trays with fine vermiculite a few years ago and haven’t had this issue since.

There are a handful of varieties such as ageratum, columbine, flowering tobacco and statice that require light to germinate. So when sowing, do not cover these seeds as it will inhibit sprouting.

Freshly sown seed trays at FloretHardy annuals such as bachelor’s buttons, bells of Ireland, bupleurum, larkspur, love-in-a-mist, orlaya and queen Anne’s lace can be tricky to germinate in the greenhouse, so pop seeds into the freezer for 10-14 days before sowing; then they will sprout readily. If planting outdoors, this step is not necessary, but it can help speed up germination.

Some varieties benefit from sowing multiple seeds per cell. They don’t need as much room to spread out on their own. These include bachelor’s buttons, bupleurum, cress, dill, flax, grains, grasses, gypsophila, larkspur, love-in-a-mist, breadseed poppies, saponaria, stock, tickseed and queen Anne’s lace.

Mixing potting soil at FloretBe sure to moisten the seed starting mix before filling your trays or containers. If you plant your seeds into dry potting mix and then try to overhead water, you’ll end up washing away your little seeds. When I’m sowing a lot of seeds I open up a 3-4 bags of potting soil, get it nice and wet with the hose and let the soil fully wick up the water before I start filling trays.

Super tiny seeds such as Iceland poppies, snapdragons and foxglove are like dust and require special care to get started. After sowing seeds, I barely cover them with a fine dusting of vermiculite. Bottom water the seeds by setting your tray in a flat of standing water and let it wick up the moisture from below versus overhead watering. If you water from overhead you risk washing away the tiny seeds with the powerful spray. 

Sweet pea seedlings at FloretIn the rush to get growing, it is easy to want to get started sowing too early. It’s important to know just how early you can start for your area.Before you go crazy sowing seeds in late winter and early spring, it’s important to know just how early you can start—if in doubt, ask your local Master Gardener group or staff at a trusted nursery for the expected last frost date.

Fast-growing annuals that bloom in summer (such as cosmos, sunflowers, and zinnias) shouldn’t be started more than 4 to 6 weeks before the last spring frost, otherwise they’ll get too big for their growing container and have soft, weak foliage and overgrown roots by the time you can plant them out into the garden.

On the other hand, slow-growing plants like perennials can take a couple of weeks to germinate, so sow them indoors 10 to 12 weeks before the last spring frost date. Once you know your last frost date, check the back of each seed packet, or catalog description for days-to-harvest to figure out how soon you can start them indoors.

Trays of flower cuttings with plastic domes on greenhouse heat matsIt is amazing how much faster and how much better seeds germinate with a little added heat. Propagation mats work great for this. If you are a home gardener or small scale flower farmer you can get by with just one or two mats.

Leave your seed starting trays on the heat mat only until they germinate. Once sprouted, move the tray off the heat and make room for the next seed starting tray(s).

Flower seedlingsDon’t seed more than one type of flower in the tray, especiallyif you plan to use a plastic dome lid. Germination rates vary by variety so it is best to have all the cells filled with the same flowers, that way you won’t be forced to remove the dome too soon for a row of early germinators or too late for those slow to germinate.

Plus, having variable plant heights in the same tray makes adjusting the height of the lights over the trays difficult. Shorter plants within the tray can get leggy when light is adjusted for the taller plants.

sweet pea seedlings growing in traysIt’s extremely important to label your seed trays immediately after sowing. Avoid the curse of the “mystery plants” by making sure to always write the name of the flower you are sowing and the date it was sown on the back of a waterproof plant tag.

I always stick the label in the same corner of every seed tray, so they line up uniformly.

freshly sown seed trays with humidity domesIf you use plastic dome lids, be sure to remove them as soon as your seeds germinate. Domes are only needed to encourage germination but once seedling emerge they need fresh air and maximum light.

I like to have a fan running in the greenhouse to help with air circulation and the gentle breeze stimulates young plants, preventing spindly, weak growth.

flowers growing under grow lightsIf you use grow 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 and as a result, I grew lots of gangly, leggy plants because they weren’t getting enough light. The bulbs were simply too far away from the foliage canopy to provide adequate light.

Once I realized my mistake, I adjusted the lights to about two inches above the top of the leaves. While this seems close, it is much better for the plant. Once I had the lights adjusted, I found that the plants grew so much better, with nice strong stems.

If you can, invest in automatic timers. If you are using lights to start your seeds indoors, you’ll want to invest in an inexpensive timer that will automatically turn on the light for a preset amount of time each day. This will help you avoid forgetting turning your lights on and off.  Plants need 14 to 16 hours  of light each day to grow.

plants growing in greenhouseBe sure to “harden off” your plants before you transplant them. I am embarrassed to admit just how many plants I fried because I didn’t do this key step. In my excitement to transplant my baby plants into the field, I didn’t give them any chance to acclimate to their new outside environment. “Hardening off” is simply a process of allowing your plants time to gradually adjust to their new environment.

Think about it: your little plants have been in a warm and cozy, temperature-controlled environment for weeks, or months. If you suddenly take them from that space and expose them to bright sun, wind and temperature swings in the open garden, it is stressful to the plant.

Floret seedsYou will likely have leftover seed after sowing which can be saved for future use. Be sure to store your seeds in a cool, dark and dry place where no insects or rodents can get to them. Though germination rates will decrease over time, most seeds will maintain their viability for up to two years. 

Seeds trays lined up in greenhouseOn your seed starting journey you will inevitably make mistakes and kill some plants. But cut yourself some slack. Just know that mistakes are inevitable. That is part of the joy in gardening is learning what systems work well for your situation, growing system and your climate.

trays of freshly sown seeds in seed trays in greenhouseStarting your own seeds can be intimidating for new gardeners, but once you get the hang of it there’s nothing to fear and it can be great fun.

In addition to some of the tips I’m sharing today, I want to make sure you know about the following Floret resources:

– My recent book, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest & Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms has detailed seed starting tips and tricks.

-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.

-Here on the blog, you’ll find a past post covering Seed Starting Basics.

-In the Floret Shop, I’ve included sowing and growing instructions for dozens of my favorite flowers.

One of my goals here on the site is to provide you with the best information, to help you grow great flowers and hopefully dispel the notion that success is only possible for professionals. You can do it!

I’d love to hear any tips or tricks that you swear by when it comes to seed starting. I always love to learn new things.

63 Comments

  1. Ange on

    Thanks for this – lots of great tips! I have been reading about soil blocks. Lots of organic veggie growers use them, but I haven’t heard much about them for flower growers. Have you experimented with them or know other flower farmers who have? Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Sue on

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge, and for the pack of sweet peas that you gifted with my order! I You mention liking “root trainers” for sweet peas- can you say more about these?
    Sue in Boise

    Reply
    • Team Floret on

      Hi Sue–Root trainers are extra long, narrow pots or cell packs that allow for ample room for root growth and air pruning. Some brands of root trainers are hinged, so that you can open them up to transplant your seedlings with minimal root disturbance. If you do a little internet search you can see what we mean. Enjoy your sweet peas!

  3. Megan on

    I think I just learned the hard way not to plant several different types of flowers in the same tray. I have sad, leggy clarkia seedlings because I hesitated to put them under the light while waiting for everyone else to catch up. And, of course, they’ll all be different heights. I also think I overwatered by bottom watering the 72 cell trays. All in the name of learning :)
    Since I don’t have enough space to plant a full tray of any single type at a time (especially with succession planting) would soil blockers be the best way to start small amounts of seeds? Crossing my fingers that I can still make my disparate trays of babies work. Every single Floret seed feels precious.

    Reply
  4. Kassie on

    Hi, I’m one of your multitude of fans getting into seed starting with Floret seeds this year. My long-stem pansies have just sprouted, and the foxgloves have just been planted under a plastic dome. My question is what strength fish/seaweed emulsion to water seedlings with, especially when they are so tiny? And is there a difference between fish emulsion and seaweed emulsion? Many thanks for all you do!

    Reply
  5. Angela on

    I appreciate your posts & sharing what you learn along the way. I was wondering if you had any advice on starting hundreds of eucalyptus in a small area inside. I plan on succession planting these so later on they will be outside, but until then what do recommend for starting them inside?

    Reply
  6. Lorrie Lewis on

    I just love your posts and your generosity with sharing. Thanks a billion!

    Reply
  7. Rhonda on

    Thanks for a great post. What do you use for potting mix? I have been buying seed starting mix but potting mix would be more cost effective.

    Reply
  8. Mariann on

    Wow, you have done a really good job! I often start my own seeds, but I also buy some in local shops or internet sites. This year I bought some of the unusual plants from this site: https://gardenseedsmarket.com/unusual-plants-en/ . It is some kind of an experiment for me, due to the fact that I am a traditionalist and often grow typical veggies and fruits. I am also impressed with the fact that you have so many plants! Would love to have such giant greenhouse! Hope every plant will sprout soon!

    Reply
  9. MaryAnne Flynn on

    Hi! Thanks for this helpful and inspiring info. I’m excited to try planting my flower seeds to get a head start on the late planting season in Vermont. I don’t have hanging lights or space for them. Is it ok to place trays near a sunny window instead?

    Reply
  10. Jean Dietrich on

    We have a greenhouse that’s not heated. We use old Christmas lights (not LED) under the plants for heat. We also like a soil block gadget from Johnny’s seeds to create the cells. No plastic involved. Thank you for your reminder about hardening off. We get excited about planting and often forget that step. Love your book and blog!

    Reply
  11. Linda on

    Help! I was so excited about trying (for the first time!) to start seeds indoors that I purchased the pink romance mix cut flower seed collection and just five days ago I planted the bells of Ireland and the Chinese forget-me-not seeds. I carefully read and tried to follow your planting tips. But now I’ve run into a major problem–it appears that there is mold growing on top of the soil! What happened? Was it the peat pots that I used? I wish that I had not planted all of these seeds so that I could start over again. Can anything be done at this point? Can I still salvage the seeds? Advice please!!!

    Reply
  12. Alex Schroeder on

    I find that pre-wetting the soil makes seeding very cumbersome. I usually seed my seeds, cover them or not depending on variety, then bottom water and mist the top with a mist head attachment for my hose. If you are doing this inside your home you can use a spray bottle. This even works for seeds you can’t cover because the mist is gentle.

    Reply
  13. Carol on

    Thanks Erin,
    Love all the information and beautiful pictures 🌻 And I am delighted with your book which I bought here in Australia 👌

    Reply
  14. Abigail Carriker on

    Do you have any particular way that you organize your seeds? Currently, I use plastic photo storage boxes that hold 16 4″ x 6″ plastic photo boxes, from Amazon. I have cool season vegetables and warm season vegetables seed boxes. Each 4″ x 6″ photo box has seed packs of one type of seed, like squash or spinach. This helps keep things organized when students are picking or I am assigning seeds for them to plant. Our NC high school Hort. I class includes planning and establishing a garden. Students really struggle with learning planting seasons, because most of them don’t garden and can get anything from the store whenever they want it.

    I am considering using succession gardening techniques with my classes, so there is more opportunity for them to plant and harvest through the school year. We planted cut flowers this spring instead of veggies. We sold out of all of our veggie plants at the spring plant sale. I want to start a new seed box with my cut flower seeds. For succession planting, should I organize by seed type or should I organize by planting time? Example: February, March, April 15th frost free, etc. How do you keep up with what is started in the greenhouse, cold frame, direct sow?

    Reply
  15. Katrina on

    Great article! I laughed as I made my way down the list. I have done so many of these mistakes over the years. I have friends ask how I have such a green thumb, but I just tell them they only see the ones growing. I have killed a vast quantity in my time! It’s part of the journey and process of gardening!

    Reply
  16. Andrea Powell on

    My flower seedlings need to be transplanted into larger containers. Do you go into larger 6 packs or into 4 inch containers? Do you remove from heat mats at that point? I have an assortment of your seeds growing including snapdragons, celosia, amaranth, phlox, bells of ireland , calendula, rudbeckia and strawflowers. They all look happy and healthy in my living room in a south facing window.

    Reply
    • Team Floret on

      Hi Andrea–
      Once the seeds have germinated, we remove trays from the heat mats. We sow most of our seeds in 72-cell flats and then transplant them directly out of those trays into the field once the plants are around 4-6 inches tall or so. If you started seeds in channel trays or small plug trays and need to bump them up, it is usually easier to go with smaller cell packs versus larger containers, as containers require more soil and more room. If your plants are big enough to transplant and your last spring frost has passed, you can harden off and transplant out. Snapdragons and bells of Ireland are hardy annuals and can take some cold temperatures and can be planted out before the last spring frost– just be sure to harden them off before transplanting them. Happy gardening!

  17. Kelli Love on

    Great tips! Thank you! My hubby and I already made the mistake of hanging our growing light too high. First timers…Whoops! I have some sunflowers that are already about an inch tall. Is it too late to change the light distance? Just ordered your book, can’t wait to crack it open and get my hands dirty!

    Reply
  18. Mary Madison on

    I am so excited I started my seed today. I placed the trays in a warm corner of my laundry room which has a fluorescent light.
    Can I just leave the overhead light on for them to germinate ? Or do I need to invest in special lights?? I just started with 2 large dome trays.
    Also how much water do you allow in bottom tray ? This is my first time to ever start seeds ,crossing my fingers !!!
    Can’t wait to get my Dahlias bulbs I feel fortunate to get my order in before they sold out !!!
    Love Love Floret Flowers !
    Blessing for your family and your new farm !
    Mary Madison

    Reply
    • Mary Gesualdo on

      I have some Dahlia tubers that came from Floret without eyes. Are they still good to plant? Also in your book,you recommend to lay the tuber on its side with the eye facing up, I have read that you are suppose to plant the tuber vertically? Also you say not to water until you see some foliage surface? Is this the same if potted in pots? Mary

  19. Linda Klein on

    I have started flower, vegetable, and herbs from seeds for over 20 years using 2 tube fluorescent light fixtures (with 1 warm and 1 cool tube each). I still start them that way in a warm cellar room. But 3 years ago we invested in 8 new fixtures for T5 fluorescent tubes and when I pot up the seedlings they get moved to a cooler part of the basement under the T5 lights. These are much stronger and my plants are noticeably taller, straighter, and stronger. HOWEVER, I place these lights 12-18 inches above the plants, raising the lights on their ceiling suspended chains as the plants grow. If you put the lights close as with the older growlights, you will fry your plants. And yes, we did learn the hard way.

    Reply
  20. Des on

    Thank you so much for this post! I love your blog and your book! Im thinking of slowly growing flowers and maybe someday having a little flower business too. I was wondering if with your seedling heat mats do you also have the temperature gage? or do you check to see how hot they are getting with a thermometer? Thank you..

    Reply
  21. Jana in North Carolina on

    Thanks for all the information. I’m retired, living in a small town northeast of Raleigh. Several years ago I started with lots of bulbs and have since added other types of flowers that I’ve planned from seeds. This past year, I had so many beautiful flowers, I starting cutting them and selling them at our little local Farmer’s Market. I’ve taken many pictures of my flowers and framed them and started selling them also. This year I’m expanding my seed planting and have looked for some new varieties that I haven’t planted before. I’ve ordered the netting to keep my tall flowers straighter, so that’s a new addition I learned from your book. I love your books about planting cut flowers. I found it at our local library, and only wish I had a copy for myself. I read the whole book. Again, I’ll keep looking for new tips, and so much of what you’ve posted is very helpful. Thanks…and happy growing!

    Reply
  22. Alastair Mather on

    I’m a beginner to vegetable gardening in a raised bed but I can appreciate what I read. But tell me, what is “a growing light”? Is it of a certain wavelength ?

    Reply
  23. April Betts Gibson on

    Erin-thank you so much for sharing your failures. It’s comforting to hear that even an accomplished gardener has experienced failure. I started sweet peas from seed last year and went on a brief vacation. My husband was watering in my absence and when I returned he stopped and I forgot to start. By the time I realized it I was confronted with lots of brown, shriveled up seedlings. As in all things, it’s not how many times you fall…..can’t wait for this season.

    Reply
  24. Hannah on

    …to follow up on John Lalley’s comment—how *do* you get rid of fungus and gnats when growing seedlings indoors? After direct-seeding gorgeous Floret zinnias last year in the garden, I am now attempting to grow Sweet Pea seedlings indoors and am just waiting for the inevitable gnats to appear. Erin, have you already posted something on this—or could you please? Many thanks!

    Reply
  25. Jen C on

    I am in the same growing zone and I am new to flowers. Do you have a list of what flowers you start at what time in the greenhouse ? Thank you!

    Reply
  26. Carolyn Hunter on

    It’s hard to believe I just heard about Floret on New Year’s Eve. It was just a few hours from midnight, while driving (my husband was driving, I was on Pinterest) through the middle of Kansas and it was 3 degrees outside as our family was traveling across the country. I was immediately entranced with the beautiful blooms on a Pinterest post, visited the website, and knew that I had finally found my passion. Now, just 6 weeks later I have hundreds of Floret seeds tucked snuggly away in my basement under lights and over warm mats. I knew NOTHING about flower farming just 3 months ago. Now, Ive read the book and studied and shopped and worked hard to learn everything I can about growing flowers. My life has changed. I know this is for me. My husband is really supportive and helpful. As a tiny kid, I gardened with my grandparents in the Nevada desert. These are the BEST memories! And now, thanks to you, it’s all coming back.
    I cannot thank you enough for sharing your knowledge. I would have never had the courage to start without your inspiring words and pictures, and I certainly would have given up without your book, blog, and website!
    BIG THANK YOU!
    Carolyn in Tennessee

    Reply
  27. Andrea on

    Thanks for all the great tips in this blog! Wondering what you transplant your seedlings into when you put them into larger pots before hardening off…my soil is way to cold to use…do you transplant into more seedling mix or ? Thanks!

    Reply
  28. Christi on

    For the 1st time I am actually really paying attention and keeping a journal about attempting to grow flowers from seeds! I received 2 of your seed collections for Christmas so I’m extra excited to see how well I do. I feel bad about having killed some of your seeds Erin, but am glad to hear you know failures happen.
    I’m on the coast in central Florida, so I don’t need to worry about frost, BUT perhaps this above average heat took out a few this weekend! :(

    Reply
  29. John Lalley on

    Thank you for such a detailed review of your seed starting techniques. I too have made every mistake in the book. I am lucky to have a son in the LED lighting business and he has been providing me with 4′ LED tube lights for some years now. They are now fairly easy to buy and I highly recommend them….lower energy cost and no risk of overheating being close to the plants. With some cheap PVC piping and some small pullies you can buy on Amazon, you can make a home made growing station. Now, if I could find a way to rid myself of fruit flies and fungus gnats I might have most of it figured out.

    Reply
  30. Jacquie on

    Thank you very much for all the early planting tips!
    Question – All the seeds I planted in cell trays a few weeks ago, including many flowers, have sprouted and look hardy and healthy. Most of them are not big enough yet to transplant into larger pots but they are in a quality potting mix. Do I need to feed them anything at this point or will they get enough nourishment from the mix?
    Any feedback would be much appreciated.

    Reply
  31. Heidi on

    Thank you! Mine seem to mold due to lack of air circulation (I think). Have you ever had this issue?

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Hitchens NPD CHT on

      Planted too thick and overwatering causes this. Make sure to use a sterile sowing mix specifically for seeds and cuttings, this is a mix that holds moisture but drains excess as well and is less likely to have fungal spores in it. I also mist/ water with chamomile tea which helps prevent fungus. If you get die off try removing the dead seedlings and mist the rest with a 10% solution made with hydrogen peroxide and weak chamomile tea, you might save the rest. A trick I use is to always have a fan circulating air over the seedlings like a spring breeze.

  32. Heather on

    Ahh! I just did my seed planting this weekend and I WISH I had read this before I did it!! Oh, well, we’ll see how it goes this year, and next year I promise to tamp down and plant different varieties in separate domes. I am experimenting – some with seed starting mix in the big trays, some more DIY in egg cartons, and some in those coir expanding pellets. No grow light set-up so I’m just hoping they sprout in my bay window. So exited to see what grows!

    Reply
  33. Cindi on

    I am thrilled that the prospect of spring is just ahead of us. Looking forward to planting larkspur, as it was one of my mum’s favorites. Because she passed away last April, as it grows and blooms I will enjoy the beauty of her life reflected in this flower.

    Reply
  34. Cindi on

    I am thrilled with the prospect of spring around the corner and growing larkspur, which was one of my mum’s favorites. As she passed away last April, I will enjoy watching their beauty throughout the season as I honor her.

    Reply
  35. Anne on

    I have studied every single word you’ve written and all the sources you’ve listed and I appreciate your grace in sharing it all with us! Honestly, I can’t sleep at night dreaming of my cutting garden this year. My biggest question right now revolves around my determination to grow beautiful sweet peas … I’m in zone 6 – have started my seedlings in what I thought was the perfect temperature controlled spot in an unheated back stairwell – 55 to 65 degrees consistently. They germinated beautifully and now I’ve got them under grow lights. The temperature on the shelf where they are located is a good 8 – 10 degrees higher now that the grow lights are on. I’m pretty sure I have the correct bulbs. My biggest concern is how high to keep the grow lights about them? (they’re 6″ above the tallest seedling right now). With the grow lights above them at 6″ the temperature reading on the shelf is 75 degrees. Should I try to cool that area to keep them temperature more in the 65 degree range? As I said previously, I really cannot sleep at night thinking about them!

    Reply
  36. Cheryl Ellenburg on

    It is wonderful to find a web site that cares so much. I am new to planting seeds. This year I bought grow lights and I’m patiently waiting for germination. I wish I had seen your web site before planting. After reading your guide, I see that I’ve already made a few mistakes. I am planting in 72 trays and all the requirements are very different. Hopefully, I can work around the mistakes.

    Reply
  37. Victoria Fairbanks on

    Thank you for all these wonderful tips. So very helpful.
    I bought some sweet pea seeds from you recently, planted them and they shot up almost immediately – every single seed! – however they are very spindly and long stems with little leaves opening on the top. I fear they are not going to become sturdy enough to plant outdoors. should I transplant them into larger pots , and THEN to their final summer ‘home’?

    Reply
  38. Cheryl Ellenburg on

    This seed starting site is wonderful and so needed for beginners. Thank you for the extra help.

    Reply
  39. Kim Buchanan on

    I love reading your blog even though I may never have the chance to actually “do” any gardening. At least I get to imagine the possibilities! You are such a great writer. Happy gardening and thanks for sharing your knowledge and passion.

    Reply
  40. monika on

    I loved the “harden off recommendation” but would love to understand what that means. How do you harden off your plants? Midwest grower..

    Reply
    • Becky on

      Here’s how I harden off my seedlings. At least a week or two before I want to plant them outside, I start taking the seedlings outside. My husband sets up saw horses with boards across them to hold the 10 x 20 flats I use. This keeps them off the ground where they would be vulnerable to various varmints around here – chipmunks, mice, squirrels, etc. You might even have to watch out for inquisitive birds. I choose a protected location and a mild day with little or no wind. A location with a little dappled shade is best. For the first day, I leave them out only for 1/2 hour at the most to avoid sunburn. I gradually increase the time every day by about 15 or 20 minutes the first few days, and check the little plants frequently, especially at first. Sunburned leaves will look whitish – get them inside quickly if you see this! The plants will gradually get used to sunshine, and to breezes. But wind and sun will probably dry out the leaves and soil much more quickly than the inside environment, so check the soil moisture and plant appearance frequently. After about a week to 10 days, they should be able to stay outside all day. Then be mindful of night temperatures, which for me in SW Wisconsin can be much more chilly than the day, especially in the spring. This may seem like a lot of fussing, but it really is worth it.

  41. Cathy Ravella on

    Have you ever heard of giving a zinnia seed a hydrogen peroxide bath to help germination ?

    Reply
  42. barbara on

    I have gardened for nearly 60 years and the 2 most important things that I have learned are…. know which plant/seeds need light and which need dark to germinate and my beloved sweetpeas do best if pre-prouted on damp paper towels before planting into individual 2 inch pots. Love your blog…thank you

    Reply
  43. Birdnscrap on

    This was a great article.
    I would add:
    Be sure to use a sterile seed-starting mixture to prevent damping-off.

    Reply
  44. Amy on

    I’m in north Florida and planned on starting my seeds this week in trays outside and also directly on my beds. Do I have to worry about hardening then off if I start outside? Do you think they will burn if I start them outside?

    Reply
  45. LynG on

    My worst mistake in starting seeds has been not providing a warm enough environment so they dampened off. I started them in what I thought was a bright enough area by a window, but before I knew it they formed a green mossy mess.

    Reply
  46. Erin K on

    Yep, I’ve read every page of your book, twice, every blog, and nearly every comment. I’ve still managed to kill several trays of seedlings this month with overwatering or forgetting to water. My lights are 3” above my seedlings and they are looking sort of sad with skinny stems but nice full leafy tops. My husband built a sturdy seed starting cart that we keep in our unheated shop, each shelf has its own set of grow lights. I will try lowering the lights to one inch as you suggestt. Thank you for all the great advice! I never realized how exciting seed starting could be – I find myself anxiously checking on “my babies” first thing in the morning and as soon as I get home from work.

    Reply
  47. Kelly on

    I live in Florida and have started some of my Floret seeds, the Zinnias and Asters have little white spots on them and some bigger brown spots. Is this from the humidity, or what did I do wrong?

    Reply
  48. Meredith on

    Great post! I just ordered from you for the first time, after admiring your farm from afar. I can’t wait to plant my little seeds. I’ve made several errors but my favorite ended up working out ok. I grew two trays worth of zinnia seeds only to have them be ready to plant before I was. I ended up planting them when the seedlings were more like 12″ tall and spindly. I decided to give it a go anyway and buried them deep and let the stem lay down on the ground. It looked like I had planted a bunch of dying plants. I guess we must have had perfect growing conditions after planting them because the stems that were laying down on the ground ended up rooting and I got many flower shoots of each one, almost like new plants. I wouldn’t recommend this and I doubt I could ever recreate it but somehow it worked out that one year. It did make me realize that I shouldn’t bite off more than I can chew though and to be honest with myself on how much I really can start from seeds. Now I stick to the unusual varieties that I can’t find in big nurseries.

    Reply
  49. Wendy on

    I too, have learned the hard way when it comes to growing seeds! I now know that squirrels LOVE squash and pumpkin seeds and that you really need a reliable seedling sitter if you will be away from them. But I also know the joy of growing something totally unique that you could only get from starting your own seeds, for me it was cotton plants, grown in the heat of the greenhouse all summer , they actually produced cotton balls!! And this in Nova Scotia , Canada , zone 6, in a unheated greenhouse! It truly is exciting to be able to grow whatever you like! Just wanted to say, that I grow all of my vegetable and flower seedlings in an unheated 12′ x 32′ unheated greenhouse with no lights. I use heated mats in wooden sided beds covered with plastic frames. This provides enough heat to grow anything, starting with begonia bulbs and perennial plants in mid February. I can also overwinter anything, such as geraniums and tender succulents. Our winters can get as cold as -23 C and everything is fine. It is such an inexpensive way to grow, the heat mats use very little power compared to heating a whole greenhouse! From ageratum to zinnia, and everything in between can be grown this way. Happy spring, and I was in the greenhouse yesterday getting my hands dirty!!

    Reply
    • Jennifer on

      Wendy, would you mind sharing a photo of your wooden box set up for me? I’m in zone 6 as well and I have access to a greenhouse at the school I teach, but it is not heated. I’ve never tried growing from seed before and I would love to learn more from you.

  50. Liz Krieg on

    Thank You Erin for always being so helpful. I enjoy finding your e-mails in my box, always.

    Reply
  51. Jennifer on

    I purchased some seeds and Dahlia’s from you and it is time to start the carnation and foxgloves. I have never started plants from seed but I’m so excited to try! I have access to our school’s greenhouse. I’m not sure if it is heated, does that matter? I live in Utah and its in the 20’s today. What do you recommend?

    Reply
    • Wendy on

      This is a reply to Jennifer about growing seeds in wooden frames in an unheated greenhouse. You can send me an email and I can give you more details [email protected]

  52. Erica Bush on

    Thank you for the information! Will it hurt my tiny seedlings on the outer edges of my tray if they are slightly bending towards my grow lights? I can only fit so much of the tray under one light. Will it help if I rotate them everyday or will that weaken the stems? Thanks!

    Reply
  53. Iraide on

    This post is just what I needed: clear and informative. I’m a complete beginner and I’m excited about sowing but also full of doubts. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

    Reply
  54. Marilyn kilgore on

    Thank you so much for this post. I am so excited to start growing my flowers 🌺

    Reply

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