One of the most exciting things about spring is being able to start seeds. Just having the prospect of those tiny green sprouts that will one day become large and luscious in weeks to come. There are many ways to start seedlings, and we’re here to go over some of the different options, and what the key components are when starting your seedlings.

When starting seeds you should first make sure that the materials you are using are sterile. Seedlings are not established plants, and cannot sustain threats like bacteria or disease. If you are working with a sterile environment, you are reducing the chances of contamination and providing a better growing habitat for the seeds to start. Make sure to clean old pots or recycled materials used,  and you can also give them a good rinse of rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.

After you have a nice sterile potting environment, there are just a few more steps to starting your seedlings!

The 6 Components of Starting Seeds

Pots As mentioned above, you have to have a sterile environment. But before you clean your containers, you have to decide which route you want to go. There are many different types of potting containers you can use including plastic seedling trays, small pots or recycled containers (i.e. glass, clay, plastic metal), toilet paper rolls, coconut coir pellets, citrus fruit rinds, eggshells, or peat pellets. Peat moss is a loved material in soils and seed starting because of it’s ability to hold in moisture, however, if you consider using it for your gardening needs please be aware of the effects of peat excavation. Essentially, when selecting a potting container, any type of small container will meet your needs as long as it’s sterile. It is also good to consider some sort of top to create a greenhouse to promote humidity and retain heat.

Soil Seedlings prefer a fine, nutritious soil. Typically one without large chunks or bark bits. You can buy an assortment of seed starting mixes, or you can sift your own potting soil. It is best to look for soils that contain perlite or vermiculite to aid in aeration, also consider soil that has compost or natural fertilizers for added nutrients, or soils that contain mycorrhizae or worm castings. I have used stater soil in the past, but this year I decided to use some of the potting soil I had lying around and just ran it through a colander.

Water This may be a little obvious, but watering is a very important component of seed starting. Seedlings like to stay moist, but not soaked. Water from bottom when possible to prevent damage the plants fragile stems. If you don’t have drainage holes in the bottom, or prefer to water from above, you can also use a spray bottle on a lighter spray setting. As with plants at any other stage, make sure to water the soil and not the plant foliage itself.

Lighting The two main types of lighting for seedlings are LED (red/blue or white) and florescent. Options range from expensive commercial grow lights to the basic desk lamp. The type of lighting you choose depends on the scale of your grow and how much you want to spend. For most small grows at home, an LED light bulb or cheaper grow light will do the trick, you don’t need to invest an arm and a leg. It is possible to use the sun to start your seedlings, but consider how warm your environment is and how much light really comes through a window on a given day. Also, windowsill seedlings tend to get leggy and bend towards the window because they often don’t get enough sunlight, and the sunlight is not evenly dispersed. I use a 15W red and blue LED and a desk lamp from Ikea with a small LED light bulb, and they have worked just fine for years. LED light strips are also useful to provide warmth underneath planting trays if a growing area does not stay as warm enough.

Besides sunlight and warmth, the height placement of the lights will effect your seedlings. Lights should be between 6 and 24 inches above the seedlings depending on the type of source you are using. Incandescent bulbs get much warmer than other bulbs, and need to be placed further away from the seedlings. Start with 18 to 24 inches. LEDs and Florescent lights do not heat up as much, and need to be placed anywhere from 4 to 10 inches. Some gardeners will recommend 16 hours a day for ideal lighting, but between 12 and 16 is efficient. I usually sit between 12 and 14 hours, and it has not inhibited any growth. Lighting is trial and error, and your plants may need several changes throughout their germination and growing periods. 

Temperature Seedlings need warmth, and the ideal temperature for germination and growth ranges around 65 to 75 degrees. The warmer temperature is also important to help create a greenhouse like environment for the seedlings. Although it is important to add warmth, also be aware of making the environment too warm. The warm and moist environment is great for seeds, but it is also a habitat for mold and mildew, so it is important to keep these aspects balanced.

Air flow In order to aid in prevention of bacteria growth and to strengthen your seeds, consider how much air flow they are receiving. Providing some air flow to your growing environment creates an environment that is closer to that of which they will eventually be planted (If you are transplanting outdoors). Also, a light breeze can strengthen the stems. Think resistance training, but for a plant. If it is warm enough, try opening a window to give your seedlings some fresh air. If you live in a colder climate like I do, try adding a small fan to your grow room to simulate that air flow.

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or just starting off in your horticulture process, starting seeds can be a satisfying experiment for all ages and all experience. Now that you have the components to growing seedlings, it’s time to choose what you are going to grow this year!

Please share your seed starting experiences, and what your favorite techniques and products are!