All the information needed for a plant to grow, thrive, and produce offspring lies dormant in a living seed. With just the right combination of each of the elements ~ air, water, earth, and sun (fire) ~ the seed will break dormancy and begin to flourish and grow into a mature plant. It is a seemly magical event to get to witness! Seed starting is very easy with a little practice and dedication, and is a very rewarding(and inexpensive!) way to start your home garden.
Starting seeds indoors in containers in a bright sunny window, under a grow-light, or in a greenhouse is a great way to extend the season and give your plants a head start before transplanting out to the garden. Sowing seeds in containers gives you more control over the germination conditions such as light, temperature and moisture. If you start with clean potting soil it also eliminates some of the potential issues of fungal growth or unwanted weed seeds that you may encounter when seeding outdoors.
Indoor seed starting for annual, perennial, and biennial herbs and veggies can begin as early as January or February here on Vancouver Island. If you live in an area with longer winters you may wish to delay this by a few weeks to a month to prevent your seedlings from getting too big or leggy before the soil has warmed enough to plant them out. This is especially important for fast growing herbs and veggies which may become stunted if left in pots too long.
Direct seeding outdoors can be a great way to start many herbs. Dill, cilantro, parsley, and chamomile all do very well direct sown. Considerations for outdoor sowing are adequate moisture and soil condition. Heavy soils can crust-over and prevent the seeds from breaking through the soil, so make sure the surface is finely worked over and kept evenly moist at all times. Because of this it can be easier to start seeds outdoors in the naturally moist months of spring and fall, as long as the soil has warmed enough (at our farm this usually means April or May).
When sowing, as a general rule, bury the seeds to a depth twice the thickness of the seed. If buried too deep your seeds may expire or rot before reaching the surface of the soil. Seeds such as mullein, foxglove, chamomile, and wormwood, are so fine that they can been simply sown on the surface of the soil and gently pressed in place.
Germination often takes place much faster and more successfully with a bit of added warmth. Many seeds need consistent minimum temperatures of 12C to germinate. Some need higher temps, such as basil which needs 21C to sprout. Try adding bottom heat in your greenhouse or on your window ledge to help warm the soil. If your window ledge just happens to be above a base board heater then all the better!
Moisture is key to having successful germination and plant growth. Once you have gotten your seeds all tucked into their new cozy soil homes, all you need to do is watch and wait ~ and water! The soil can dry out very fast. It is important to check on your newly seeded containers at least once a day. Watering gently with room-temperate water is bestto prevent dislodging the seeds or shocking the newly emerging seedlings.
Once the new little sprouts pop out of the soil it is very important they get adequate sunlight to develop properly and prevent legginess. You want your seedlings to look more short and stocky rather than tall and slender: more like dwarves than elves. If you see long unusually thin stems bending toward the light this is a sign that the amount of sunlight needs to be increased.
Over-watering and ‘damping off’ can also be a common problem. Damping off causes rotting of the seedlings stems and is due to a fungus that flourishes in overly moist conditions. It is best to water the surface of the soil lightly and frequently. Try letting the soil surface dry out very briefly in between waterings.
Once your seedlings have one or two sets of true leaves, they are ready to pot up into larger pots or transplant out to the garden. It is important to prevent transplant shock by hardening them off first. This involves gradually introducing them to the outdoor conditions before permanently planting them in their new homes. You can begin hardening off by opening a window or moving your seedlings into a temporary cold frame.