The lesson behind the well-known fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears has been applied across many disciplines over multiple decades, but I’ve yet to come across it’s use in gardening. The notion of “just right,” sometimes referred to as “The Goldilocks Principle,” came to mind recently when giving several seed-starting tutorials.
Although some home gardeners might consider seed starting to be too much work, many of us prefer to start our plants from seed for several reasons. Personally, I enjoy the process of nurturing potential life through it’s various forms and stages. I find it completely mind boggling that a tiny seed can turn into a giant plant!
Wonderment aside, most people prefer to start seeds because nurseries carry far more varieties of seeds than they do seedlings. Seed catalogs offer even greater choice. Take, for instance, my favorite catalog, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. In addition to cover crops, herbs, and flowers, they carry tons of vegetables, offering over four dozen different types of hot peppers and another four dozen kinds of sweet peppers! Now, for some, this is just too much variety, but if you’re looking to grow something unusual or one of a kind, seeds are the way to go.
Starting seeds is fun and can also be economical, especially when sharing the task with friends. Just last weekend, I started flats of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and okra–plants that take 8-12 weeks before they are ready to plant outdoors. My friend ordered the seeds, I brought containers and seed starting mix, and we spent a fun afternoon planting. In general, I try to start anything the Solanaceae family around February 1st, but no later than February 14th, so I can put them in the ground around May 1st (there is still a 10% chance of frost until mid-April in my climate). Check here for average frost dates in California.
So what does this have to do with Goldilocks? Ensuring success with seed starting relies on several just right conditions:
- Select varieties that are just right for your climate. If you live in a relatively short growing season, don’t pick a 120-day tomato; opt instead something that will ripen in 80-90 days.
- Use a sterile seed-starting medium. Not only is it free from potential pathogens, but it is formulated to hold just the right amount of water to swell, thus enabling germination.
- Clean containers are recommended. If reusing plastic six-packs, sterilize them in a 10% bleach solution. Recycled and decomposable containers are also great options.
- Once seeds have germinated, make sure they have enough light. Although some types of seeds do need light to germinate, few vegetables do (except lettuce).
- Keep seed flats consistently warm. Somewhere between 65-75 degrees is a just right soil temperature. A small heating mat for seed trays is a worthwhile purchase. (or a soil thermometer if sowing directly into the ground).
- Water seeds consistently as well. This one is really important to get right. Too much water and your seedlings may rot. Too little and they will dry up.
Many other types of seeds can be sown directly in the ground, but they, too, have their own just right conditions. Seed depth must be not too deep for the cotyledons to push through and not so shallow that they aren’t kept moist enough. Spacing is also important for seeds that are directly sown. Generally, a minimum of 6-8 inches between plants is suggested, although some plants take more or less room. Plant rows 12-18 inches apart. When in doubt, read the seed packet.