The first time I started plants from seed, I actually had quite a bit of success. There were a few friends who stopped by my home that first year to take some transplants off of my hands that I had started, and they often expressed their sadness of how all of their plants had come up leggy. I was confused! What was I doing differently that they weren’t? Maybe I just had a certain touch. Well, you can bet that this year I experienced my first leggy seedlings. I had decided to plant some kale in the second week of February, hoping for an early planting to happen in the garden later in March. I placed my seed tray by a south-facing window and waited, just as I had done the year before. What I did not realize that I started a bit too early, not necessarily for the plant to thrive outdoors, but for the seedlings to thrive with minimal sunlight. February is generally pretty overcast and gray! Seedlings that do not have adequate sunlight are trying their hardest to reach for any light they can get, and if it’s not a lot, then their stems turn all thing and curly. Has this happened to you? Or maybe some other problem? This list of tips is meant to help you get past some first-timer blunders and give you some new ideas for growing strong, healthy transplants.
Tamp Down Soil in Your Containers or Cell Packs
This is something that I completely failed at in the first year that I started plants from seed! I can remember kneeling a few beds away from my mother, who was helping me transplant, and listening to her surprised gasp. I looked up to see her holding a tiny stem and bare roots, with the potting soil mix fallen all over her lap. The soil had not been compacted, and therefore, had left a lot of air in the cell pack and not a whole lot of grip for those baby roots. Kind of traumatizing for the plant!
Pack down the soil in your containers and then press it down a little more. This helps to eliminate air pockets, which baby roots do not like. Once you do this, planting seeds should be a breeze by using a dibber or a simple pencil to make a hole in the center for the seed to live. Cover and continue on!
Moisten Your Seed Starting Mix Before Adding Your Seeds
By watering your seed starting mix before planting in it, you are simply making less work for yourself. This can easily be done by emptying your seed starting mix into a large container like a plastic storage bin and watering until it becomes moist but excess water doesn’t drip out when squeezed. Pack this into your starting tray and then plant. This is a particularly good idea especially for small seeds that may float into the corners or wash away.
Use Bottom Heat To Speed Up Germination
While sunlight is essential for growing plants, seeds actually need warmth in the soil to germinate. This is why propagation mats are made! You can easily speed up germination by several days by setting your trays somewhere that they can receive some bottom heat, like on top of the fridge or over a heating blanket. They need somewhere between 75-85 degrees. Once they germinate, then you can remove the trays from the bottom heat and just leave the rest to the sun!
Remove the Humidity Dome After Seeds Germinate
The same as the heating mat, the plastic humidity dome is only for starting seeds until they germinate. After that, they’ll need air and sunlight to grow healthy and strong. If you do not remove the dome once everyone (or mostly everyone) is sprouted, you could actually kill your seedlings!
Bottom Watering is Best, Especially for Small Seeds
If you are out purchasing your seed starting equipment, you’ll most likely pick up a drainage tray, or the tray that goes underneath your cell packs. If possible, get the kind that does not have any drainage holes! Watering your plants from the bottom up ensure that your seeds will not float or move into the corners of the pack. It also prevents fungus from thriving and disease spreading. Water is meant for the roots of the plant and not the leaves, so allowing the soil to drink up the water as it needs it is a great way to ensure that you are neither over nor under watering.
Do Not Underestimate the Power of the Sun
Leggy seedlings happen, most often, because they are not getting the amount of sunlight that they need. Even if your trays are in a south facing window, the strength of the winter sunshine will most likely not be enough to get them to grow in nice big leaves and thick stems. If you do not have a place for them to get strong sunlight, then invest in a grow light. A grow light needs to be no more than three inches above the tops of your plants and an LED light works great.
Transplanting To Larger Containers May Be Necessary
Seedlings grow fast! Once they sprout their true leaves, or the second set of leaves they will grow, you may have to transplant them to a larger container. By doing so, you are giving the roots more room to grow and ensuring a strong and healthy plant. You may also notice that several sprouts are coming up from one cell in your starting tray. These extra plants need to either be removed or transplanted to their own cell. Letting too many seedlings grow in one cell can crowd the roots and not allow any of the plants growing in it the space it needs. One plant per cell is the way to go!
Harden Off Plants Before Transplanting
If you still feel like your plants’ stems are not thick enough, try putting a gentle fan on them or gently running your hands over the top giving them a little shake. This helps them to hold up in the wind later! Hardening off seedlings is essential to ensuring that your plants can acclimate easily to living outdoors in the sun, wind, new climate, and elements. You can do this simply by placing them outdoors in partial sun and just letting them sit. This may mean that have to do a lot of plant shuffling all day, but it’s better than finding a dead transplant in the garden!
Remember, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if you make mistakes or something goes wrong. Even with all of the control in the world, your plants may die. That’s okay! The nice part about seed starting is that it’s fairly affordable, and you can try again. Happy sprouting!