Hello fellow gardeners!
We are so excited about the flowers we are growing this year. From amazing perennial varieties of columbine to the trusted annuals we adore such as chantilly snapdragons and giant zinnias, there is so much beauty in store! As a small, community-focussed business, we want to share as much of our knowledge as we can about the growing process, so that all of you can have beautiful gardens for the neighbourhood and yourselves to enjoy! This is why we are writing a Seed Starting 101 post, to hopefully give you some pointers to lead to successful growing.
The number one rule is don't skip any of the rules. I say this because this is what I will do, I will think to myself, 'oh, that one little step doesn't matter, I've done the rest so well!', but with seeds, it all matters, so try your hardest not to skip!
1) Check your last frost date for your region. The big old adage that I grew up with is May 24, May 24, May 24, BUT, all the research that I do has led me to believe that the last frost date in the Hamilton area is actually around May 15th. We will plant flowers whose growing instructions (on seed packet or else google 'growing ___ from seed') say that they can withstand some frost, around May 15th, and the rest we will wait until the end of May to plant, just in case.
2) Check the growing instructions for each and every variety that you wish to grow. Some need to be started earlier and some later. The instructions will give you a range (eg 8-10 weeks), so you count back from your last frost date to determine when to start your seeds.
3) If you go to a specialty seed store like William Dam, you can ask the knowledgeable staff about your specific seed-starting needs. They have the basic materials you will need, which are: special soil that seeds need to get started; cell packs (for planting your individual seeds in their special compartments); tray liners (for placing the cell packs in and then filling with water to bottom-water your seeds); and degradable pots of various sizes, for seeds that need a little more space as they are growing, or for plants that don't like being transplanted out of the cell-packs at planting time. These pots can be planted directly in the ground, unlike their plastic counterparts. We can't vouch for the effectiveness of this, however, as we've had mixed results and also heard mixed reviews about this process from other growers. Also purchase labels that you can stick into your cell packs to show what is growing there. Use waterproof marker when writing on them. I think to buy the more eco-conscious variety of wood labels, you would need to order online. I don't yet have a recommended source for these.
4) Get your seed-starting area set up. Seedlings will need about 14-16 hours of light per day (don't do less OR MORE, for optimal results), so the best thing to do is set up grow lights. You can do this with shop lights bought at a home hardware store, with an even amount of warm and cool light bulbs installed. At the same store, buy some by-the-yard chain and some hooks. We screw into some exposed wood beams that we have on the ceiling, to hang the chain and lights on, but you might want to set up a shelf system, where you put your trays of seeds on a series of shelves, and the rig the lights to the shelves. Either way, you want to make sure you can have lights about 2-3 inches above the cell packs, and then be able to adjust the lights upwards to maintain this as the seedlings grow. We also recommend one or a few space heaters, because different seeds will need to maintain different temperatures during germination. Again, do your research! Google the growing instructions for each variety.
5) Put cell packs into the trays, add water to the trays so that the soil can start to absorb it right away, then fill the cell packs with the soil, press down, fill with more, and then press down, and repeat as often as necessary until you have firmly packed, moist soil. Roots don't like air bubbles, so getting packed soil is necessary. It also makes it easier to push the seedlings out at planting time.
6) The great thing about your trays are that they will hold water, so that you can bottom-water your cell packs. It's a good rule of thumb to only bottom-water. You will need to keep an eye on water levels, and keep a lot of water in the trays, so that the soil is consistently moist and never dries out. Unlike some of those tropical houseplants you have, seedlings do not like to be dried out between waterings! A tip here is to have a thin-neck watering can that you can poke under the cell packs to fill the tray with water. Trays are awkward to carry, especially with water in them, so bringing them over to the tap isn't easy.
7) Seeds come in various sizes, so be prepared for some seeds to look as fine as dust. Follow individual directions for each type, but in general you will be putting one seed in each cell pack. The instructions might tell you that the seeds need light or dark in order to germinate, so you will be instructed to leave on top of the soil or push in accordingly.
8) Stick your labels in your cell packs in very clear and organized ways. In our first year we thought we would remember what was where, so we did very rudimentary labelling, but that was a huge mistake! This year we've put many labels bordering out areas in the cell packs so that we know what flowers type, and colour of that type, are where. It is recommended that you stick to one type per tray, so that you can control conditions specific to that type, but that's not always possible, so just do your best, but stay organized.
9) Your seeds will need constant care to make sure that they don't dry out, the temperature stays where it needs to be, and the lights are the right distance away, for the right amount of time.
10) Once you have strong seedlings, about one week before transplanting outside, start moving your trays outside into the great outdoors, so that the seedlings get used to the weather and the sunlight. They need this period in order to adjust. Bring them in at night or in frosty periods.
11) When you are almost ready to plant, make sure you have prepared your soil using compost. Rich soil makes all the difference with plants. Plant your flowers the directed space apart. To get them out of the cell packs poke through the bottom holes of the cell packs and gently work them out. Because plastic is so bad for the environment, try your best not to wreck the cell packs so that you can reuse them the following year. A bit of tape will be fine if you get a stubborn seedling and need to rip the cell pack a bit.
12) Be gentle with watering your new plants, and be vigilant about weeds, which can steal all their nutrients. Mulch helps with this, but be sure to leave space around the plants, don't choke them.
13) Use natural fertilizers instead of chemical ones. There are quite a few recipes online for making your own, often called 'compost tea'. Plants need this food to do well.
We hope that this will help you, and we welcome any questions you have! Best of luck in the coming season!