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Sprouting Success: A Guide to Seed Starting

Can you feel it? The days are getting longer, the birds are singing, and spring is just around the corner! You know what that means – it's time to get your hands dirty and start your summer garden! But don't worry, you don't need to be a pro to do it. With a few basic tools and some simple tips, you'll be growing fresh veggies and flowers in no time. So, let's roll up our sleeves and dig in!

Direct Sowing vs. Transplanting

Before you make up your mind on which sowing method to use, let's take a closer look at what each term means. Direct sowing refers to planting seeds directly into the soil in your garden. This method is simple and cost-effective but can be riskier, as the seeds are exposed to the elements and other potential hazards such as pests or weather conditions. Transplanting refers to starting seeds indoors or in a greenhouse and then moving the seedlings outdoors once they are large enough to handle. This method is often used for plants that have a longer growing season, such as tomatoes or peppers, as it allows you to get a head start on the growing season. A good seed company will typically include the recommended sowing method on the seed packet info.

These are the veggies and flowers we most commonly start indoors, here at Fifth Acre:





Herbs such as lavender, thyme and cilantro








Why indoors?

Starting seeds indoors has several main advantages:

  • Longer growing season: By starting seeds indoors, you can get a head start on the growing season and extend the length of time that you can harvest fresh produce from your garden.

  • Control over growing conditions: When you start seeds indoors, you have greater control over the environment in which they grow. This includes the temperature, light, and moisture levels, which can be difficult to control outdoors.

  • More plant variety: Starting seeds indoors allows you to choose from a wider range of plant varieties, including ones that may not be available at your local nursery or garden center.

  • Cost-effective: Starting seeds indoors can be a cost-effective way to grow your own plants, as seed packets are often less expensive than buying seedlings or mature plants.

  • It's fun: Starting seeds indoors is a rewarding hobby that allows you to connect with nature and watch your plants grow from tiny seeds into thriving, productive plants!

When To Get Started

Knowing your growing zone is important for successful seed starting. Your zone helps determine the best time to start your seeds based on the expected last frost date. The last frost date is when temperatures are expected to stay above freezing. You can determine your zone and frost date by checking the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map or other online resources. Keep in mind that frost dates are not set in stone and monitoring the weather forecast is important. Seed packets will indicate how many weeks before the last frost date to start the seeds indoors.

So, for example, if May 8th is the last frost date in Zone 6, Northeast Ohio, and a tomato plant can be started 6 weeks before that date, then you can start your tomato seeds on March 27th. Here at Fifth Acre, we try our hardest to resist the urge to jump the gun and start our seeds too early. We've learned the hard way that it's better to wait until the recommended sowing date on the seed packet to avoid stunting our plants' growth. Nobody wants rootbound seedlings, and we definitely don't want to set them up for failure! Remember, patience is key when it comes to seed starting.

Let's get setup

If you're just starting out with indoor seed starting, you don't need a lot of fancy equipment. All you really need are some basic tools - seed starting trays, a good seed starting mix, and some quality seeds. You might also want to invest in grow lights and a timer to make sure your seedlings get the right amount of light each day. Explore each link to discover the tools we prefer for starting seeds on our farm!

Things to consider

Seed Starting Soil

The soil you use to start your seeds is critical to their success. Look for a high-quality seed starting mix that is light, fluffy, and well-draining. Avoid using regular garden soil or potting soil, as they can be too heavy and compacted for seedlings. Seed starting mixes are specifically designed to provide the right balance of moisture retention and aeration, which is essential for healthy root growth. Some mixes even contain added nutrients and beneficial microbes that can help your seedlings get off to a strong start.

Air Circulation

Good air circulation is important for preventing disease and promoting healthy growth. A small fan placed near your seedlings can provide a gentle breeze that helps strengthen their stems and prevents fungal growth. However, be careful not to place the fan too close to the seedlings, as this can cause them to dry out too quickly.

Germination Temperature

Different plants have different temperature requirements for germination. Some, like peppers and tomatoes, require warm temperatures (around 70-80°F) to germinate, while others, like lettuce and broccoli, prefer cooler temperatures (around 60-70°F). If you're not sure what temperature range your seeds need, check the seed packet or do a quick online search. To maintain the proper temperature, you may need to use a heating mat or adjust the room temperature.

Grow Lights and Timers

If you want your seedlings to grow up big and strong, they need plenty of light. Unfortunately, a regular windowsill might not cut it, and your plants may end up reaching for the sun and becoming spindly. That's where grow lights come in handy! They provide a consistent source of light, so your seedlings can soak up all the rays they need to thrive. LED grow lights are energy-efficient and provide the full spectrum of light that seedlings need. You'll want to position the lights about 2-4 inches above the seedlings and keep them on for 14-16 hours a day. To make things easier, consider using a timer to ensure that the lights turn on and off at the same time every day.

Seedling Watering

Watering your seedlings properly can be challenging. Overwatering seedlings can lead to a common problem known as dampening off, where the seedlings rot at the base and die, so it's important to keep a close eye on the moisture level of the soil and water only when necessary. Underwatering seedlings can lead to stunted growth and weakened plants. To avoid these problems, try bottom watering. Simply fill a tray with water and place your seedling containers on top. The water will be absorbed from the bottom up, keeping the soil evenly moist without drowning the seedlings.

Plastic-Free Alternatives

Consider going plastic-free! Two great alternatives to plastic seed trays are soil blocking and peat pots. Soil blocking involves using a special tool to compress soil into individual blocks, which can be planted directly into the ground or a larger container. This method eliminates the need for plastic trays and reduces transplant shock. Peat pots are another option, made from compressed peat moss that breaks down in the soil. While they can sometimes be more expensive than reusable trays, peat pots are biodegradable and a better option for gardeners looking to eliminate their plastic use.

You've got this!

Learning from mistakes is an important part of any gardening journey, and seed starting is no exception. Don't get discouraged if you encounter a few bumps along the way. Remember that even experienced gardeners make mistakes, and it's all part of the learning process. Keep track of what works and what doesn't, and adjust your methods accordingly. Before you know it, you'll be a seed starting pro, with plenty of homegrown veggies and flowers to show for it!

Here at the farm, we've been sowing seeds in our basement nursery all week, and it's been a joy to see the first sprouts emerge. So don't be afraid to give it a try! With a little bit of patience, some basic equipment, and the right seeds, you can be well on your way to a thriving garden in no time. Happy seed starting!

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