Here’s a look at the seeds I started a week ago:
This tray is planted with tomatoes in 4-inch pots (which are actually 3 1/2-inches – go figure). Most of the tomatoes have come up (they’re pretty easy) which is in stark contrast to my peppers, which you’ll see in a bit. In my experience peppers take much longer – about 1-2 weeks longer – to come up than tomatoes, and I used to try and start them a couple weeks earlier than my main seedlings (admittedly, this didn’t happen very often!). But since I wait longer to plant peppers (I wait until June most of the time – peppers like it reliably hot), they have longer to grow inside anyway so I’ve found that it actually doesn’t make that much difference in our part of the world.
Two things you’ll notice right away from the above photo:
- There are lot’s of clumps of seedlings – aren’t you supposed to plant only 3-4 seeds?
- There are empty pots.
Yes, we should plant 2-4 seeds – not all seeds are viable, which is why you need to put more than one seed in each cell or pot. And when I have fresh seed packets that I’ve just purchased I do plant 2-4 seeds – there are some pots in the photo with only 2-4 seedlings. However, I keep my seeds from year to year and some seeds store better than others, like tomatoes. But when a packet of seeds is more than 2 years old I plant more because I’m not sure of it’s germination rate. I hate to throw out seeds, so I always like to test – one of the tomato packets I used was actually 5 years old, and I think almost all of the seeds I dumped in germinated!
And the empty pot? This is normal – sometimes seed just won’t germinate for some reason or another. I wasn’t surprised by this, as it was another old seed packet – but this time it was 7 years old (hey, it doesn’t hurt to try!). It was a different variety of Roma tomato, and I was planting other types that I knew I could transplant if none came up. Also, some seeds may take two weeks to germinate, like the peppers I mentioned, so sometimes it’s not a failure yet.
So, let’s care for our seedlings! Week 1 Seedling Care consists of:
- Watering well (fertilizing maybe)
- Strong light
So, what to do with those clumps of seedlings? It’s best to thin these now before the roots get too tangled. In fact, you must thin now if you want strong, healthy plants that will survive outside. On quick-to-mature plants that can be put out when they’re smaller (like lettuce or basil), I sometimes leave two seedlings to a cell, but for all others, all but one need to be thinned out eventually.
Here are some tips to thin your seedlings:
- At this week 1 stage, I like to make sure my bases are covered and keep 2-3 of the strongest seedlings just to make sure that if I do lose a seedling or two in the thinning phase I will have some to grow to maturity.
- I’ll eventually thin to the strongest plant by clipping off the others at the base of the stem, because by that time their roots will be growing together and I won’t want the strong plant disturbed (usually in week 2 or 3).
- You can use your fingers to gently pull out the little seedling – the roots are small enough that they easily pull out. Start at the outside and just pull a few at a time.
- You can also use a narrow tool – I like a chopstick – to help remove the unwanted seedlings from the roots up – just be careful not to dislodge the seedlings you do want to stay.
What do you do with the thinned seedlings? You can transplant them into other pots, but you run the risk of having way too many plants – it’s OK to thin, really! Just compost the seedlings – if you don’t you may end up like my in-laws who found that they were overrun with tomatoes. But you also may need to move some of the seedlings to fill in other pots.
Tips for Moving/Transplanting Seedlings
- Use your narrow tool/chopstick to gently push the roots up from the side – you want to make sure the seedlings have a good amount of roots showing.
- Use the tool to make a shallow hole.
- Plant the seedlings with some space between them, using your tool to gently push the root down into the hole and covering back up with soil.
- Use your finger to tamp the soil firmly around the newly planted seedlings.
After thinning and transplanting, your seedling tray at week one should look like the one on the right with 1-4 seedlings only in each pot. Note: I did have a pot that I apparently forgot to put seeds in – sigh – since it didn’t have a label either, that’s why I still have an empty pot in my after photo – I’ll have to wait another week for the new seeds to sprout.
- After thinning and transplanting, water in your seedlings well with a light water stream.
- I use warm water since I have a heat mat – it just seems like it’s better than putting cold water in and then making the heat mat work to heat it up.
- After watering, no matter how gentle your stream was, some seedlings will be laying on the soil. Use your finger to gently lift them up and re-firm the soil back around them to help them stand up strong again.
- Remove one of the pots/cells and fill the bottom of the tray with water about half-way full. This is “watering from the bottom” and will be the best way to water your seedlings from now on to encourage deep rooting.
- Optional: you may add a half-strength organic fertilizer or fish emulsion (get “odorless” though – it will still smell some, but not nearly as bad as regular fish emulsion!) if you wish at this stage. I usually wait until about week 3, though, because I want to wait until all my seedlings have sprouted before fertilizing.
Here’s a before-and-after thinning for my tray of “cole crops” (ie, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli) in the small 6-cell trays and peppers in the larger size. As you can see in the before photo, some cells have an abundance of seedlings just like the tomatoes did and some have just a few or even none. Only one of the cells with peppers has sprouting seeds, and I’ll just wait on these cells to see what sprouts over the next week or so.
For the cells with lots of seedlings, just take the same steps of thinning, moving/transplanting, and watering that we did for the tray of tomatoes.
I do want to point one of the quirks of starting plants from seeds – just to let you know that you didn’t necessarily do anything wrong: some varieties of seeds are just less viable than others – even when the seeds are fresh.
Two 6-cell trays of cauliflower seedlings are pictured above – the Cheddar, Purple, and White cauliflower were all brand new seed and the Romanesco seed was actually 3 years old! I have a problem starting the Cheddar and purple varieties every year – they are just a touchy seed. We’ll see if that tiny purple cauliflower sprout actually grows – sometimes they just stay that size and then disappear.
So, don’t despair – just try a new type next time or stick to the vegetables and flowers that grow well for you and buy nursery starts of the types that are harder to grow.
That’s it for week one care – it took only about 10-15 minutes to pull extra seedlings, transplant some, water and then put them back under the lights. For the next few weeks:
- Make sure that your light stays as close as possible to the tops of the plants and check them daily, moving the light up when needed.
- Water from the bottom, keeping the trays half-full of water, adding half-strength organic fertilizer at week three.
- Thin/transplant any seedlings that need it.
- Remove all but the strongest seedling from all pots by clipping weaker seedlings at the base of the stem.
Once they are planted, there’s not a lot of time involved and it’s fun seeing my little “babies” come up! We’ll check in again at the 6-week mark when we’ll harden some off to plant and transplant others to larger pots.