The Art of Seed Starting


You finally have all your seeds, and you're ready to get these bad boys in the ground so you can start cranking out some squash. 

If you've read any of our other posts, you know that we learned the hard way that you can't just stick some seeds in the dirt and expect a bountiful harvest in a month. For something that should happen so naturally, seedlings are little divas. 

So where do you start?


Seed Starting Trays>>>>>

We like these trays from Amazon. Not only do they have several cells for you to plant lots of seeds, but they have a tray underneath to hold water. It is best to water seedlings from the bottom during their beginning stages. Why? Not only does it force the roots to travel downward to reach the water, but it helps prevent overwatering. When seedlings are overwatered, damping off can occur. 

Damping off is a disease caused by fungus and mold that causes seedlings to collapse and decay. It is a death sentence for newly emerging seeds. Once plants get a little bigger, it is easier for them to fight off the fungus, however, even for mature plants, when overwatering occurs, this same fungus can cause root rot. 

If you have ever had seedlings that suddenly got really skinny at the base, then died a couple days later, you my friend, have fallen victim to damping off. 

The culprit can live in the dirt, and when presented with cool, excessively wet soil, it grows and spreads like wildfire on our seedlings. 

Signs of damping off are:

  • seedling never emerge from the soil
  • young leaves wilt, fall over, or turn a yellowish/brown
  • once healthy seedlings suddenly become threadlike
  • fluffy white cotton candy looking webs grow on seedlings and soil

Unfortunately, there is no saving plants that are infected by damping off. As Michael would say, "you've been hit by, you've been struck by, a smooth criminal." In fact, large sections or entire trays are usually killed at once. You might as well toss them and start again. 

Although there is no way to save infected plants, there are ways to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

  • Always use clean trays and tools. If you are reusing trays, clean and sanitize them to get rid of old spores that may be present. 
  • Use fresh soil. Don't reuse soil, especially if damping off occurred in it before.
  • Repeat after me.. THOU SHALL NOT OVERWATER
  • Run a fan on your seedlings. Not only does it make the stems stronger by simulating wind, but it creates good circulation around the seedlings, preventing excess moisture and humidity. 


All soils are not created equally. There are different soils for different needs; seed starting mix, potting mix, garden mix, etc.

But does it really matter? In the wild, a seed just falls in the dirt and grows. Mother Nature doesn't make it fall into special seed starting mix and it still does just fine...

Well, Mother Nature isn't trying to grow seeds in plastic pots in the house either, so...there's that.

Seed starting mix really is your best option for starting out. It is light and fluffy enough so the tiny seeds can easily grow roots and not hold too much water. 

Here is a great seed starting mix >>>>>>

The downfall is that it can get very expensive if you are starting lots of seeds. You can easily make your own mix with just a few ingredients.

  • 4 parts compost
  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part vermiculite
  • 2 parts peat moss or coco coir
  • a healthy scoop of earthworm castings

So what is all that stuff?

Compost is pretty self explanatory and can be found on our composting post.


Perlite is a naturally occurring mineral that helps aerate the soil and improve drainage.

You can buy bags of it like this one>>>>>




Vermiculite on the other hand, helps with moisture retention. Not only does it hold the moisture in, but it also, helps retain essential nutrients in the soil.





 Coco Coir is made from coconut husk fibers and acts kind of like a sponge. If you have ever bought kids grow kits with the little soil tablet that you have to rehydrate.. that is coco coir. Coco coir strikes a balance between holding an adequate amount of moisture and allowing excess water to drain.

Coco Coir >>>>>>>




Earthworm castings are literally earthworm poop. And earthworm poop is like gold. It is good for seed starting because it acts as a natural fertilizer that won't burn your plants.

Earthworm Castings>>>>>>>


The Actual Growing Process

Seeds need warmth and light in order to sprout. If you are trying to get a jump start in the spring, it may not be quite warm enough yet to put your seeds outside, so you have to recreate the feeling of being outdoors. Grow lights and heat mats are a great way to provide this. 

Heat mats are placed under the tray of seedlings to accelerate seed germination by regulating the soil temperature to 70 to 85℉. They are waterproof, so you don't have to worry about watering on it. The only downfall is that each mat has it's own power cord, so if you have several trays, you won't be able to plug them all in at once. 

These are the heat mats we use>>>>>>



Grow lights are really beneficial because they simulate sunlight. Yes, you can put seedlings in a sunny window, that usually doesn't provide enough sunlight. Plus the seedling will stretch to reach the sun, so you will have to constantly rotate the trays so the plants don't grow crooked. Grow lights are centered over the trays so that the plants grow upwards towards the light source. Many plants don't need light until they've sprouted, so you'll start using grow lights once your seeds begin to germinate and the first leaves poke through the soil.  

Grow lights should be placed a couple of inches above the seedlings, but you will need to monitor them as they grow. If they start to discolor, you may need to move it back some. If the plants start to get leggy (a very long stem compared to the size of the leaves), you will need to move it closer. 


(Seedlings that are showing a little too much leg)


You will leave your mats and grow grow lights on for about 8-10 hours a day.


The first thing to sprout from the seed is the "seed leaf". These leaves grow from the seed's stored energy. The second set of leaves that grow are called the "true leaves". These are the leaves that start to perform photosynthesis and help the plant grow. You can't fertilize plants until after they have their first set of true leaves, or it will burn them.

Because you are growing your seeds in such a small amount of soil, it is important to "feed them" every couple of weeks until you are ready to plant. 

We LOVE this fish fertilizer because it is natural and gentle, yet high in nitrogen so that the plants concentrate on leaf production and growth. No lie, the first time I used it, my plants doubled in size in just a few days.

A WORD OF CAUTION THOUGH!!! This fertilizer gets mixed with water and you water it over the tops of your plants. IT IS BASICALLY ROTTEN, GROUND UP FISH! Imagine that smell in the heat of summer. It will smell really bad for a while wherever you water with it. And please, for the love of God, do not get it on your hands like I did. The smell lingers. FOR A LONG TIME! But the benefits are well worth putting up with the stench.

fish fertilizer >>>>>


Potting Up

Potting up is when you move the seedlings to a bigger container to allow the roots to spread out and grow. Potting up isn't always necessary if you plan on putting them straight in the ground. However, if it is still to cool to put plants in the ground and your seedlings have reached a few inches tall and seem to have stalled out, you will need to move them to a bigger container. A 3-4" pot and regular potting soil can be used to plant them in until you are ready to plant them in the ground. 


Hardening Off 

Hardening off means to prepare your seeds for the transition into the ground. You have been pampering your seedlings and tending to their every need for so long, the last thing you want to do is throw them out into the wild to fend for themselves. They need a little time to acclimate to the ACTUAL sun, wind and rain.

To harden off your seedlings, you will move them out into the sun and back in at night. Do this until the overnight temperatures are above 50 degrees. And of course, bring them in any time there is a chance of storms or strong winds. 


So there you have it, a few tools to put in your toolbox that will make you an excellent seed starter. Not only will it help you save money instead over buying plants, but the sense of accomplishment you will feel from making those plants grow is like nothing else! 

Happy Planting!

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