I learned a few things last year when I started peppers and tomato plants from seed, so I decided this year to improve on my experience. I started my plantings this year with an actual seed starting formula instead of just generic potting soil. Even though, I almost always buy Miracle Gro, this particular blend is supposed to help with good root development- which if you read my previous article, this is one of THE most important aspects of successful tomato plants: excellent root growth. It was a few more $ than the regular potting mix, but one small bag was more than enough for starting all my seedlings.
Last year, I started seeds in gallon milk jugs that I’d cut the tops from. I dumped all the seeds in together into the jug and set the top back on the bottom half to make mini-greenhouses. This seemed a great idea at the time, I found out that when the seedlings outgrew their milk jug homes and needed to be moved to individual containers, it was very difficult if not impossible to separate their roots without destroying some of them. This year, I opted for saving egg cartons. I tried to keep it to no more than 1 or 2 seeds per cell. I did run out of cartons and had to put a few in a lid and a few more in a halved milk jug. I tried to keep them further apart than I had the previous year though. If the individual cells work well, I’ll be sure to use all egg cartons with cells next year.
The egg cartons are sitting in a big, black plastic garden tub I picked up at Lowes for only $8. I figured it would be much nicer to move about than several different trays- I used cookie sheets to hold all my bottles and containers last year, which worked ok, but it was kind of a pain in the butt moving multiple sheets in and out when it came time to harden off the seedlings. This tub contains everything nicely, it’s waterproof, easy clean up and it’s black, so it will help absorb heat.
We were having trouble getting those tiny little tomato and pepper seeds to stay put where we wanted them, so my daughter helped me make seed tapes. Some very tiny seeds will come from the seed companies already in paper tapes. Seed starting kits from the store often come with miniature pots made of peat and a thin, biodegradable net to keep them from falling apart until the roots create a network to hold the pete in place when removed. I cut small squares of paper towel, and sprayed them with a couple squirts from a spray bottle while she held it in her hand. We then set the seed on the wet towel, which stuck very nicely. I was able to move a bit of soil from and egg cell, put the paper down with the seed and have it stay in place while covering it back up with soil. The paper towel degrades naturally and doesn’t stop the roots from growing, just like the net-wrapped pete cells. The pete cells are convenient, but can be costly for a large set up. This method only costs you about 1 paper towel per 20 or so seeds. 🙂
Once all our seeds were planted I used a tea spoon to lightly firm the soil over the seeds. You don’t need to really pack them down, you want the soil to stay a bit light for those tiny, tender little roots to take hold. Watering will help to further settle the soil around the seeds and help them to start germination. A fancy tool isn’t necessary for planting seeds, this old teaspoon and fingers worked well.
After all the seeds are covered in soil, you’ll need to give them a good drink. I’ve found that pouring water displaces too much soil when you’re dealing with small seeds and shallow cells. I use a spray bottle filled with water, the same one I keep for training cats, cleaning houseplant leaves, etc. It cost me $2 at the grocery store. I’ll continue using this to water while the seedling are in these tiny cells. Over watering could cause mildew to develop or rot the roots.
Tomato seedlings are pretty distinctive and it isn’t difficult to differentiate between tomato and pepper plants once they get a few leaves on them. However, I planted two different types of tomatoes and two different types of peppers. If it’s important to you that you can tell what you’ve planted where later, make sure to label everything. Otherwise, you’ll be playing roulette with your seedlings when you put them out in the garden, since they won’t have identifiable fruit when they’re transplanted. I used toothpicks wrapped in cloth tape and wrote on them with a permanent laundry marker. I’ve seen people use old silverware, which looks elegant in the garden itself, Popsicle sticks, plastic cutlery- last year I cut triangles from my left over egg carton lids and wrote on those. It’s not important WHAT you use. Just make sure it’s A) Waterproof and B) Won’t degrade before your plants are ready to be moved outdoors.
In case you forget when your plants are supposed to germinate, would like to remember the specific water, spacing or sun requirements or just want to know the plant name so you can choose the same for next year (or brag about the particular type of heirloom you planted and grew with great success)- you’ll want to keep your seed packets or write it down somewhere. If you order your seeds online and created an account with the seller, they’ll probably have your order on file and you can refer back to it that way. Personally, I find it easiest to just hang on to the seed packets themselves. I put them in a Zip-loc baggie to keep them from getting dirty or wet and tucked them into my plastic tray right next to the seedlings. Easy reference, close at hand. Stick them in a file to reorder next year after moving your plants to the garden.
I put my finished seed tray in front of our big bay window, which gets all but the late afternoon sun. It’s sitting on top of my daughter’s wagon, so it moves around nicely. That’s a leftover bit of drywall board underneath it for stability. I use what I have and re-purpose what I can. I see lots of fancy shelving systems with installed grow lights and such. Get them if you feel they make your life easier, your growing space look more attractive, or whatever the reason- but know that they are absolutely NOT necessary to successfully grow plants, regardless of what the salespeople or online ads tell you. The black plastic tub with help absorb and retain warmth on the seedlings, since I don’t use seed warming mats either. I put a bit of clear plastic over the tray that was leftover drop cloth from a painting project; it helps to retain warmth and moisture while the seeds germinate. They don’t really need a grow light until they actually break through the soil.
This photo I took today, it’s about 3 1/2 weeks from our initial plant date. You can see that I have some pretty decent sized seedlings already. The tomato plants all came up first, the peppers took about a week longer. I did notice after a week of good growth that the tomato plants were getting a bit leggy (long, thin stems from not enough light); I had this lamp in our bedroom that is adjustable, Tom picked me up a plant light bulb during a trip to Lowes to get a snow blower. The bulb was $7 plus change, but made a HUGE difference in the amount of light my seedlings were getting. I also cut up a box into three parts and covered the insides with tinfoil to act as light reflector screens. After a week, the tomato plants are already thickening up and less leggy and the peppers have all come up as well. I kept the plastic and draped it over the top- my ghetto greenhouse. Drop cloth plastic, foil, diaper box, plastic tub and some egg cartons. It’s working beautifully and I spent next to nothing on it.
Tomatoes are ready for transplant when they have two sets of true leaves. These guys are already very close; I’ll probably be moving them into bottles in a week or so. My husband drinks a lot of bottled water and I drink a lot of Gatorade when I work out, so I’ve stockpiled the leftover bottles in our utility room. These were great planters last year. They let in light, they’re easy to remove when it’s time to plant and since they’re clear- I can see the root development on the plants and whether they actually need water or not. I’ll post updates when the seedlings are ready for transplant.