Seed-Starting 101: Sowing Practices, a How-to | Civil Eats

Seed-Starting 101: Sowing Practices, a How-to

This is part four of a six-part series on seed starting. Part one can be read here. Part two is here. Part three is here.

Once your schedule and protected space are set up, it’s time to actually do the deed: stick seeds in dirt, get ‘em wet, and watch ‘em grow. It’s surprisingly easy to succumb to anxiety when the moment arrives: am I burying the seed deeply enough? Too deeply? Is the soil wet enough? Too wet? Did I plant too many tomatoes? Too few? Here are some simple steps to demystify the process.

Step One: RELAX. Take some deep breaths. Until about 100 years ago, nearly every person on the planet came to this moment many times each year. Things often went wrong: for them as they surely will for you. And yet, your presence on the earth today is proof that even when things were done imperfectly they still often worked out. So, approach the task of seed sowing with openness and a sense of adventure: no matter what happens, you’re about to learn a lot about plants, about the natural world, and about your own attitude (I know: not exactly how you wanted to spend your free time, this last.)

Step Two: CHOOSE A METHOD AND STICK WITH IT FOR A WHILE. There are countless media and containers–and labels and watering cans and gardening gloves–to consider for sowing time. You can start with a sterile soil-less mix made almost entirely of peat moss and vermiculite, or one full of compost and rich microbial activity (I prefer the latter). You can start with plastic trays and cells; with tiny cow-manure compost pots; with leftover mini yogurt containers (with drainage holes punched in the bottom–don’t forget!); or with no containers at all when using soil blocks (each has its pros and cons, but we use soil blocks ourselves for most seed-starting). You can place seeds into soil with a tiny little plastic seed dispenser thingy (it looks like a giant comma with a clear lid), an electric vibrating seed dropper (yikes!), a moistened end of a toothpick, or your pinched fingers (I prefer toothpicks and fingers). The options are seemingly endless.

I suggest, however, that you pick one method and stick with it for a season or two until you’ve mastered it, figured out what you like and dislike about it, and are able to make a conscious decision to try out a different approach. In nearly all cases, problems at the seedling stage are less related to containers, soil media, or sowing method than they are to the conditions in which you are growing the plants (see last week’s post for details on this).

If it’s your first year with a garden, the easiest route is to head to a garden center and pick up one of their seed-starting kits and a bag of organic potting soil specifically labeled for seed starting. The kits are fairly inexpensive and include all you need for successful growing of a small quantity of plants; the organic mix will get your seed off and running with plenty of nutritious compost available to feed the young plants. You’ll probably find that these kits don’t make sense as you transition to a larger garden or more encompassing suite of crops, and at that time I would encourage a bit of googling to research seed-starting methods used by small farms and avid gardeners. (For those looking for this information right now, here are some links to get you started:, newspaper seed-starting containers, seed-starting rays and peat pellets, and lots more. Don’t drown in the information! No single method is perfect!)

No matter which system you choose, do be sure to consider that seedlings require fertile soil: if you start with a soilless mix, transplant the young’uns into good, well-composted soil quickly or provide a liquid organic fertilizer until transplant time. (This added consideration is why I prefer a potting soil with compost; McEnroe Farms makes a great one that is available at garden centers throughout the Hudson Valley.)

Step Three: SOW. Once you’ve picked your set-up and gathered materials, begin. Nearly all common vegetable and flower seeds are best sown at a depth that is approximately two to three times their diameter. It’s pretty easy to eyeball this, and once you get the hang of it you’ll do it intuitively. What it means is that tiny seeds, such as those for carrot, lettuce, basil, and most herbs, need only be covered by one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch of soil–or even just a dusting. Brassicas need one-quarter inch to three-eighths inch depending on the seed size. Beans need a good one-half to three-quarters of an inch. And so on. The drier the conditions, the deeper you should plant, as seeds germinate best when they occupy the magical spot where the soil remains fairly moist but oxygen from above ground is able to reach them. When the ground is dry, the moist layer is lower and the oxygen travels easily through the dry layer on top; wet conditions call for the opposite treatment. Once the seeds are in place, water them in: give them a nice good drink to allow the seed coats to soften and the process of germination to begin. (Note that if the mix you begin with is totally dry it will need to be watered before sowing, as a perfectly dry soil-less mix will often not moisten easily once in trays–seeds sown into these conditions will often float off once watered.)

Step Four: OVERSOW. It is all too easy for something to go wrong during the seedling stage. An emergency that takes you unexpectedly away from the house and your seedlings to wither; a power outage that zaps your grow light for several days; a curious cat that mistakes your trays for a litter box: all can spell trouble. The best insurance against things going wrong is to sow many more seeds than you actually need. I learned this lesson the hard way early on, and it’s saved me many times over the past few years.

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One important method of oversowing is to re-sow everything (or nearly everything) sown on one date a second time two or three weeks later. This may not work for those with tight space restrictions–it’s even hard for us sometimes–but I can report that on many occasions the later plantings have been a happy blessing. One summer a late-sown round of tomatoes staved off an early blight beautifully (young plants are often able to repel disease more easily than fully mature plants), while another spring our second-round of young celeriac seedlings replaced some that perished when we failed to vent a cold frame on a lazy sunny day. Troubles come, and it’s wise to anticipate them. (I told you gardening is a learning adventure.)

The hard part is at transplant time, when, if all actually goes well, you’ll have plenty of extra seedlings that can’t make it into the limited space of your garden. Give ‘em to friends or family, or sell ‘em on craigslist. There’s always demand at transplant time for veggies that folks didn’t start from seed themselves.

Step Five: PROVIDE WARMTH AND MOISTURE. I’ve taken a slightly laissez-faire attitude here in the past: I never cover sown seeds with plastic wrap or anything like that. I do keep them watered if it looks like they are drying out. And I do provide warmth. The warmth is very important: cool pepper seeds can take weeks to germinate, while those kept above 80 degrees will germinated within about five days, usually. See this link for a great summary of the ideal germination temps for different vegetable types.

Achieving these temps can be tricky in a wintery home, but I’ll soon be posting a couple of DIY-themed addenda to this series with more details on this step: one on building the cold frame pictured in last week’s post, and one on tricking out an old fridge as a germination chamber (an idea I’ve swiped from many wise farmers, including Jay and Polly and Erin and Sam at Four Winds Farm / Second Wind CSA and Linda-Brook at Back to Basics).

Step Six: GET RID OF WARMTH AND MOISTURE. Ack! So crazy, isn’t it? Once you see your first flush of germination in any batch of sown seeds, quickly get them out of the warm and moist environment you’ve provided for germination and get them somewhere a bit cooler and a lot drier. Too much moisture brings on the dreaded damping off and is one of the most common mistakes made by new gardeners. If growing seedlings indoors, take them off the heat mat; if growing in a cold frame, move your seedlings in and let them cope–happily! really!–with the slightly cooler temps and the drier air. (The only real exceptions to this rule are peppers and eggplants, which thrive in continued warmth for much of their young lives–not the mid-80s that make them germinate quickly, but definitely the mid-70s, which keeps ‘em happy but does not allow them to remain too pampered and weak. If you can’t provide just the right conditions, don’t sweat it, and err on the side of room temperatures, or use a carefully watched cold frame from mid-April on.)

Oh, and make sure that the young seedlings get plenty of light. See the last post in this series for details. Don’t hate me, but I must say it again: a sunny windowsill is almost never enough light.

Step Seven. RELAX. AGAIN. Once you go through this process a few times you’ll get the swing of it. Behold the young life unfurling by your own efforts. Be grateful for it. Don’t worry to death over it. Taking part in gardening is all about stepping into sync with natural rhythms, which are in constant motion. Seed sowing is just one part of the process, and it is not a zero sum game. Sow some stuff in the coming week or two; so more the weeks after that; more after that. In fact, once you understand when to sow which varieties, you’ll be sowing eight months of the year, along with transplanting, weeding, and–with any luck–harvesting. You give and you wait to receive. You receive and you feel grateful. You always glance ahead and consider what you can sow now for harvest later. Don’t lose sight of the dance and get trapped in the feeling that it’s all or nothing: there is nearly always something to be sown right now to improve your garden prospects, feed you and your loved ones fresh food, and save on your grocery bill several months down the road.

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Any specific sowing tips or methods you heartily endorse and would like to share? Any train wrecks to steer others away from? Comment away!

Originally published on the Hudson Valley Seed Library blog

Doug Muller is co-founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. While teaching in Miami, he dreamed of getting back to his roots in upstate New York. In 2005 he returned, learning everything it takes to farm by hand and run a seed company. For more garden tips and to browse the seed catalog, visit You can also follow the seed library on Facebook and Twitter. Read more >

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