It’s almost here! Spring is right around the corner, and while in many parts of the country winter is just beginning to buckle down in earnest, it’s time to start thinking about your Spring garden.
For gardeners in the colder regions, that often means starting your seeds indoors. But for those of us with only a small space to garden in, seed starting can pose some unique challenges… Namely, that we have limited space to work with.
This guide to seed starting is especially for the small space gardener. For those new to gardening, we’ll cover all of the basics, but for those who are well-versed in seed starting, skip ahead to the “Let’s Get Started” section to dig right into getting started with soil blocks!
Why start your seeds inside?
Great question! While seasoned gardeners can skip over this section, those new to container gardening will want to read on…
The first and maybe most obvious answer is that it’s cold outside, and no one wants to go out there--especially not your seeds. Your kitchen/living room/bay window, however, is nice and toasty, and a perfect place to get your garden growing.
Young plants are at their most vulnerable, during the germination stage, so starting your seeds inside allows you to protect them from the cold and even environmental contaminants (like overspray from grounds maintenance, if you live in a ground-floor unit!).
It also allows you to get a jump on your Spring garden, especially in climates where March and April are still too cold to reliably get your veggies started outside. Some warm weather favorites, like tomatoes and peppers, are extremely sensitive to the cold AND need a long time to grow, making them two of the most popular picks for starting inside (usually in February.. get ready!).
As an added bonus, both tomatoes and peppers are quite prolific, so getting them producing early, even if you only do a couple of plants, will net you more than enough of each so that you can do some fall canning if you get really ambitious. (And if not, neighbors and friends are usually more than happy to take the extras off your hands!)
Where to start…and when.
The short answer is “now,” because it’s never too early to start preparing. February is actually the perfect time in many areas of the country to get those tomatoes and peppers growing. But the longer answer is that when to start depends on where you live and what you want to grow. Here’s how to figure it out…
Find your region’s “last frost date”
The last frost date for your region is the very first thing you need to know to decide when to start your seeds. The “last frost date” will tell you the average date at which it is safe to move your plants outdoors.
To find your area’s last frost date, you can contact your local Cooperative Extension Office (a great resource for many things gardening related), or plug in your zip code into Dave’s Garden’s Freeze/Frost Dates tool to take a look at frost trends in your area.
Pick your plant..
Now that you know your frost date, it’s time to decide what you want to grow. If you’re looking for some suggestions, your Cooperative Extension Office will be able to make some recommendations for your area (and give you a little guidance on what grows well in a small space garden as well).
… And read the seed packet.
Once we know our last frost date, and what we’re growing, all we need to do is read the seed packet to find out how long it takes to germinate the seed.
Most seed packets will list that information along with how far from the last frost date you should be planting them (along with general seasonal timing information). But if you’ve saved some seeds from other vegetables throughout the year, or find that your seed packet is lacking in information, you can find the relative germination periods for any common vegetable here.
Let’s get started!
As small space gardeners, space, of course, is always at a premium. While many container gardeners will start their plants directly in the pots they’ll ultimately grow in, this can take up a lot of room. Not such a problem if you have a basement to start your seeds in.. much more challenging if you’re trying to find room in small home or apartment!
Meet your new BFF--soil blocks
Enter soil blocks. More effective than “pony packs,” smaller footprint than starting in pots, soil blocks are every small space gardener’s best friend. For more on soil blocks for small space gardeners, check out our previous posts here and here.
What you’ll need...
- Seeds or “cut-and-grow-again” edibles that can can be planted in lieu of seeds
- Soil blocking starter kit (Don’t need the whole kit? Making soil blocks yourself? Grab a good mix for it here)
- 2 buckets (one for water, the other for mixing)
- Plant trays with covers (or plastic wrap)
- Watering can
- Warm water - Filtered or purified is best
- Heating lamp/pad
Step 1: Make your soil blocks
In general, the process will look like this:
- Gather your materials:
- Warm water (penetrates soil more easily for quicker mixing and blocking)
- 2 buckets (one for water, one for mixing)
- Soil blocker
- Blocking mix
- Propagation tray (or reuse an aluminum basting tray!)
- Mix about 4 quarts of warm water with 10 quarts soil -- mixture should be “clumpable,” not soupy
- Load your soil blocker (follow manufacturer instructions)
- Punch blocks out onto propagation tray, fitting each row tightly together.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have enough soil blocks for the number of seeds you’re planning to start
Soil that is prepared especially for blocking will have additional nutrients in it than standard potting soil, and is formulated to hold its shape, so whether you choose to mix your own, or purchase a premade mix, having the right stuff is essential.
Step 2: Plant your seeds
One of the many conveniences of soil blocks is that they already have the seed crevice created for you--just the right depth, and no additional digging required.
Plant seeds, cover with soil, and water gently to moisten top-most layer along with seed.
Different seeds have different germinating needs. Be sure to check individual seed packets for any special instructions on seed preparation--some seeds may need require light to germinate, in which case you should sprinkle them on top of the final layer of soil, while others require darkness and an opaque cover.
Checking the instructions before you plant will allow you to best plan the layout of your propagation trays, and keep all of your little seedlings-to-be happy.
Step 3: Cover your trays
Cover your trays to keep in some moisture and heat. Most seeds do not like high humidity, so typically the moisture that remains from the blocking process is enough to keep them happy--but not too wet.
As noted in Step 2, different seeds have different germination requirements. Be sure to follow the specific instructions for your seeds!
Step 4: Tuck your trays in someplace warm
Since most seeds do not need light at this point, you can put them anyplace that will give off some heat. On top of the refrigerator is an ideal spot for most seeds at this stage, and keeps them off your countertops.
Check seeds periodically to be sure soil does not feel dry--if so, use a spray bottle to gently mist the top soil. Just be sure not to soak them! Seeds like relatively low humidity while germinating.
Within a couple of days to a couple of weeks (check the germination time on your seed packet!), you’ll see your seedlings start to emerge.
Step 5: Let there be light!
Once you see the little sprouts of a seedling peeking through the soil, it’s time to move the seedlings to a well-lit area. Often a sunny south-facing window will do, or if you have the room, setting them under some grow-lights for 14-16 hours/day (place plants 2-3” from the light) is ideal.
Throughout this phase be sure to keep your seedlings moist--not soaked--with a mister bottle for watering.
Depending on how long you decide to keep your seedlings inside, you may need to adjust the height of your lights to ensure they stay 2-3” above your tallest seedling.
Step 6: Time for an upgrade…
As soon as you see the first real leaves on a seedling, your seedlings are ready for some larger accommodations. Prepare a larger pot with potting soil, and nestle your soil block in, and gently pat down the soil around it.
You can lightly fertilize your seedlings at this stage, by using just a pinch of an organic fertilizer.
Step 7: Moving on out!
Once seedlings have reached a couple of inches tall, they’re ready to start transitioning to the outdoors. They’re still fragile little plants that have only known the comfort of the indoors, so we’ll need to transition them slowly, through a process called “hardening-off.”
To do this, make sure there is no chance of frost/freezing, and move your seedlings outside into a spot with diffused sunlight (not direct sun) for a few hours each day, being sure to bring them in at night.
Over the course of 10-14 days, gradually increase the seedlings’ time in direct sunlight by an hour or two per day, until they are spending all day in direct sunlight.
Keep an eye on the overnight temperatures, but by now, they should be about ready to spend the night outside, and make the move to full-time outdoor living.
And that’s how you start some seeds!
While soil blocks may add a step early on, as opposed to starting in pony packs, they save a lot of hassle when it’s time to transplant, including reducing the risk of your seedlings becoming root-bound.
Now that you know what you’re in for, get on the phone with your Cooperative Extension Office and get started--and if you have any questions (or want to let us know how your seeds are doing!), don’t hesitate to drop us a line.