Tag Archives: seed starting

Seed starting log: Optimal conditions for germination

Gardening, I have found, can be either a highly scientific process or a highly artistic process. This depends largely on who you are and how you think. I started out a couple of years ago with no real plans, just a few seeds and a real desire to make this work. It kind of did, but mostly didn’t. Last year, we were a little more deliberate about it. We calculated seed starting times, tried to put them under lights, and transplanted them out when we thought they should go out. Some varieties flourished, like the ‘rose Quartz’ tomatoes and the Russian kale, but others didn’t really take off until August, leaving me with very little time for a crop in my 5b growing season. 

This year, we decided on an intentional, deliberate and – dare I say it? – scientific approach to seed starting. Plants are very much like people. Finicky and particular, they really care exactly how you treat them. And if you don’t treat them the way they want you to, they simply will not respond. 

Here are some lessons I’m learning as I start my seeds. 

  • Tomatoes like to germinate in the dark. Just make sure the place you put them isn’t freezing, and they’ll come up just fine. I like to plant my seeds in yogurt cups with drainage holes poked in and covered with plastic wrap. My tomatoes are mostly germinating between 3-5 days after planting, at which point I take off the plastic and move them under the grow light. 
  • Peppers like light and warmth. These guys are not going to do great if I try to sprout them in my basement under the grow light system. I’ve been preparing my yogurt cups, putting the whole thing inside a ziploc bag, and putting that on top of the radiator. My cubanelles and mini yellows sprouted beautifully. I’m still waiting on the ‘Santa Fe’ peppers, which haven’t been on the radiator. I think my experiment is working. I also sow the seeds directly on the soil surface to allow the most light penetration. 
  • Don’t drown your seedlings. Use a spray bottle, tepid water, and some love. How would you like a bucket of ice cold water dumped on you whenever you got thirsty? Your plants hate it too. 
  • Love your seedlings. I know this sounds goofy, but I firmly believe that your seedlings can feel your love and affection. Care for them as if it matters, and they will respond. 

The realization that I’ve come to is that the scientific approach and the Zen approach are probably the same: treat your plants the way they want to be treated. They will flourish. 



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Seed starting log: Dwarf tomatoes

A fresh, ripe juicy tomato is the crowning glory of the home gardener’s summer bounty – we all know that. There’s a lot that goes into that process, though, from selecting your seed variety all the way to knowing when to tell your plant that enough is enough. One of the biggest challenges with growing your own tomatoes, especially in a location with cold winters, is knowing when to start them. Most guides will tell you 6-8 weeks before the last frost in your zone.

The tough thing about that is that in many zones, my Zone 5b Pittsburgh garden included, I can’t really tell you when the last frost will be. Yes, the almanac says May 1. But honestly, I don’t quite trust that. One terrible frost and all the tomatoes will be goners. Having said that, delaying seed starting just to push the transplant date well into mid- to late-May is not a great plan either, knowing that it will cut my growing season short. Of course, there’s the added hitch – I simply don’t want to wait anymore! It’s cold, snowy, icy and bitter outside. I work odd shifts, sometimes not seeing the sun for days. Those little sprouts of green poking their heads out are pretty much all I have to remind me that this isn’t the end of the world.

So your question is probably this: What’s the solution to all this?

Well, there’s a magical little thing called a dwarf tomato. These are usually determinate varieties, which means they set fruit all at once, and are compact and well suited for container growing. Some examples of this are Tiny Tim, Goldilox, and Hahms Gelbe Topftomate, all of which I’m hoping to grow this year. The advantage of starting these seeds early is that even as they start to grow, you know that they won’t start to sprawl and creep all over the place. Even in case of a late frost, you can comfortably keep them indoors in containers and they won’t get rootbound or get out of control.

I started ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Hahms Gelbe’ a few days ago. I’ve heard great things about both varieties. Tiny Tim is a small red cherry, and Hahms Gelbe is a slightly larger yellow. Remember that tomatoes need lots of light to avoid getting spindly and leggy. Keep the grow light no more than 3-4 inches away, the closer the better. I’m using a cool fluorescent bulb set up in my basement, which is about 65 degrees F.

Follow along with me and we’ll see what they do this year – it’s all a big experiment!

Seed starting log: Genovese basil

I had a cinnamon basil plant and a Thai basil plant, both grown from cuttings, living in my kitchen window. Unfortunately, the dark winter and cold drafts took them both and I was left utterly basil-less. I waited until it was utterly impossible to wait any longer and decided to sprout my own. This year I have big basil plans, but I’m starting with just the one variety for now. I set this little pot underneath my lemon tree, in its pot, and let nature do its thing. These beautiful little seedlings thrill me to no end. They are so bright and sturdy.