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Starting Seeds, Part 4: Getting Your Gear Ready

Start clean for successful seeds!

So you’ve ordered seeds, or perused the seed catalogs - or are just daydreaming about the seed starting class (just announced dates - March 10 or 11 - see our Eventbrite page!). But it’s still not time to start seeds (usually not until 6-8 weeks before they can be put outside). So what to do now? Channel your gardening energy into gathering and preparing supplies! First, we’ll tackle the “gear” - that is, everything but the dirt and seeds.

Most of the items discussed here can be acquired very cheaply. When I started, I asked around to see if anyone had anything to give away -- co-workers, family members, neighbors, FreeCycle, Craigslist, and NextDoor are all great resources for this. And feel free to use the Swissvale Community Garden facebook page to reach out to fellow garden enthusiasts, too! Almost every single thing that I am using now I acquired for free from one of these sources. That’s another great reason to start gathering supplies now - you have time to do some searching. Of course, you can purchase all of these items, too - from hardware stores to garden centers to online catalogs, there are many resources. Don’t forget to also check second hand shops, too - the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, St. Vincent DePaul, Goodwill, Construction Junction, Center for Creative Reuse, and others are excellent sources for materials.

Seed trays, plug trays, 6-packs, homemade and natural containers, etc.

Acquire: First, you’ll need something to start your seeds in. The most important thing to remember is that you want something small and well-drained at this point. The material it is made of (plastic, styrofoam, cow manure, paper, toilet paper tubes, yogurt cups, etc.) is not so important as is the pot’s capacity to drain away water. This might seem counterintuitive -- don’t you want your seeds and small seedlings to get enough water, and to not dry out? Sure. However, standing water in a pot that doesn’t drain well can cause a fungus to grow in the soil, and cause something called “damping off” -- it makes the seedlings weak and spindly. This is also why you want a small container in the early stages - larger containers can hold onto more water, which can cause damping off.

Prepare: If re-using anything made from plastic, styrofoam, clay, metal, etc., sterilize your pots. You can do this by soaking/spraying on a 1:9 solution of bleach: water (so, for example, 1 cup of bleach to 9 cups of water). Let them soak/sit for about 10 minutes. Alternatively, if you do not like or cannot tolerate bleach, you can also use straight white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, or rubbing alcohol. In all cases, be sure to use soap and water to rinse afterwards. For clay pots, you also need to use steel wool to clean. We don’t recommend re-using cow manure, peat pots, paper pots, or cardboard/toilet paper type pots. They will hold onto fungus and mold and cannot be easily washed. There are countless tutorials online about making homemade pots. Feel free to try any, so long as they are well drained!

Larger pots

Acquire: Your seedlings will only grow a few weeks in the smaller pots with seed starting mix. They will soon need to be “potted up” to larger containers. This gives the roots enough room to grow without stunting the plant, and prepares it for the larger garden or larger pot environment. Get 3-6 inch pots or larger, or larger upcycled plastic containers (large yogurt containers, etc).

Prepare: Prepare the larger pots in the same way as your seed starting pots -- sterilizing is very important for containers that are being re-used.

Lighting

Acquire: Light is the single most important thing your young seedlings need. They need at least 14, if not more, hours of light each day, and it needs to be fairly direct and intense. Windowsills rarely work. Consider using fluorescent or LED lights, rather than incandescent, which get too hot and are have less blue spectrum - you plants will be tall and spindly under these lights. For both fluorescent and LED lights, a tube light, which throws light in all directions, is often better. If you are growing a lot of seedlings, you may want shelves with three or four foot “shop lights” in them. If you’re just growing a few, reflective clamp lights and a CFL/spiral type bulbs work. In any case, for any light, you do not need a grow light, but can get by with a daylight or cool bulb (5000K). Do not get soft white or warm. The more lumens, the better, so a 100 watt equivalent bulb or two is best. This advice is best for growing seedlings, and not flowering plants. To get plants to flower, you do actually need a full spectrum, with both warm and cool lights. You may want to also get a timer for your lights.

Prepare: No matter what type of lights you use, also consider how you will adjust the height of the lights above the plants, and prepare for this. If you use shop lights, this could be done with chains or wires. If you use clamp lights, you could adjust the height of what the lights are clamped to. This is important, because the light should be VERY close to the plants at all stages - within an inch or two. So as the plant grows, the height of the lights must change. You can also change the height of the plants, of course - starting them elevated, and close to the light, and gradually decreasing the height of their base.

Warmth

Read the temperatures at which your seedlings germinate. Many do best at 70 degrees or more. Some peppers need it warmer. If you house is that temperature, you are fine. If you are germinating in a basement, you need another source of heat. Fluorescent lights of a higher lumens do produce heat that, if there are lights above and below (for example, if you have multiple shelves), the heat is sufficient. You can supplement, by covering your pots in plastic until they germinate, or purchasing a seed heating mat, or by space heating in a plastic “tent” around your seed pots.

Watering tools

Acquire: A spray bottle or other container capable of fine misting is ideal for the early stages, to avoid damaging the tender shoots. A watering can or homemade watering cup can be used for larger seedlings. A hose with a fine/not very strong spray can also be used. However, bottom watering is also good for seedlings. You can place the pots in trays that do not have holes, and put water in the trays, allowing the soil to absorb moisture from below.

Prepare: Anything that is being re-used or re-purposed should be sterilized, as listed above.

Mixing bin/tub

Acquire: I make my own potting mixes, so I use a 5 gallon bucket or large (100 quart or more) plastic storage bin for mixing the dirt.

Prepare: Sterilize anything that was used in the past

Gloves, spades/small shovels, etc.

Acquire: Acquire gloves and/or small garden tools that can be used to get the soil into your containers neatly and efficiently.

Prepare: Wash or sterilize anything that was used in the past

Labelling supplies

Acquire: Think of how you will label your seeds. Will you label each pot with a popsicle stick? With stick on labels on the container? Consider making sure the ink you use will not run when wet.

That just about covers the major supplies. Next time, we’ll look at seed starting and potting mixes -- almost time to dig in!

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