slideshow: vegetable seed-starting how-to
First I had to solve a technical problem: How could I show you the step-by-step for seed-starting all by myself? Wash my hands between every step to avoid filling my Nikon with peat and perlite? And even at that, I only have two hands, so whose would be in the demo?
Aha! Enter Andrew Beckman, then-garden editor at my former employer Martha Stewart Living, who was also my weekend neighbor and gardening buddy until he moved West to become editor of garden book publisher Timber Press.
Normally, I don’t start tomatoes until April 15 here in Zone 5B, but the year we shot these photos, we were trying something new, which required a little headstart. The slides show Phase 1–starting the seeds–of our grafted-tomato experiment (aimed, as you may recall if you read my wintertime post about grafting, at giving heirloom types more vigor and better yields). But you can use the same how-to for starting most any seed; it’s a great basic step-by-step, logical and simple.
One difference: You won’t need the size-XL pots we used for sowing our tomato-grafting rootstock; 2-inch cells or even smaller for some crops like salad (traditional 6-packs, for instance) are fine. Again: the process is the same for sowing other vegetable crops, even if the pot size isn’t.
I had other help, too (being useless with most carpentry tools). My neighbor, Tom Foley, built my new crazy seed-starting rig (above) in about five minutes, with a matching one for his wife, a gardening friend. The key to a good light stand is being able to adjust the lights upward as your seedlings grow; at any time, you only want them a couple of inches away from the babies. When I asked Tom, “How’d you get the rope you strung the hood from to be adjustable?” he started talking carpenter, and I glazed over. And then he translated:
“It’s like the ‘keeper’ on the hem of your ski jacket, that keeps the wind out,” he said, and then I got it right away. Wow. Smart. If the “buttons” with which I adjust the ropes are beyond your carpentry skills, use hook eyes and S hooks and chain, as I explain in my old seed-starting rig post. Or you can just buy a pre-made adjustable stand (see the product recommendations at the bottom of the page.)
If you need lights, as I did, consider the newer, more efficient ones. I got T-5 tubes and an aluminum hood from a hydroponic supply place online (again: see below). The approximately 13-by-27-inch hood, which was $118, delivers twice the lumens of regular fluorescent hoods, and is extremely lightweight. Using the APS system of flats and cells, I can get about 60 2-by-2-wide seedlings beneath it at any given time. The only part you don’t see: a simple timer, to automatically turn the lights on 14 hours a day (and then off).
More seed-starting help:
- Want to know how to succeed with tomatoes, seed to harvest? (Want to know how to graft tomatoes?)
- Want to know about basic seed-starting, whatever the crop?
- Want to read every last thing I’ve posted here about tomato-growing, for better or for worse?
- Worried about the diseases (like late blight) that beset many areas last summer?
- We’ll be back with a how-to tomato-grafting slideshow next month, once our seedlings shape up; stay tuned. Wish us luck, meanwhile.
To start the slideshow, click on the first thumbnail, then move from slide to slide using the arrows next to each caption. Enjoy!
seed-starting gear i use for best results
LADBROOKE SOIL BLOCKERS: Many experts swear by soil blocking (as opposed to sowing in cells or open flats without blocks). The tools for making blocks, in various sizes. Note: The mix you use must be rated for blocking.
JOHNNY’S 512 MIX: I’ve ordered this for germinating purposes for years. Has organic nutrients (fishmeal, not chemicals) added. Works for soil-blocking, too.
SEEDLING GERMINATING MAT: I use single-tray-sized mats (approx. 8.5×18.5 inches), but heat mats also comes in double-wide or double-long (for two trays), and up to 5-foot-long pro versions.
SOLO 2-LITER ONE-HAND PRESSURE SPRAYER: I mostly bottom-water seedlings, but during germination and when seedlings are tiny I mist them with this handy sprayer.
HYDROFARM JUMP START T5 SYSTEM: Just one 4-foot bulb on an adjustable super-lightweight frame; can accommodate two flats.
HYDROFARM FLP24 T5 HOOD: Fitted with 4 bulbs so the hood is 2 feet long by 11 inches wide. Must be fitted with hardware to raise and lower from a stand or shelf you provide; hood is about 10 pounds.