How To’s from the Farm – Lesson 1: Starting Seeds

Lesson 1: Starting Seeds

Depending on the type of seeds you plan to plant in your garden, many can be given a jump-start (and an edge against weeds) by being started in soil blocks (rather than directly in the ground) and later transplanted into garden beds or pots.  Ideally you will need the following tools:

Sterile seed start mix*
Seed trays

* Some argue that it’s actually helpful to add organic fertilizer (compost, worm castings, etc.) to the mix, especially for more advanced gardeners.  More info here.

If you have a small garden or only plan to start a tray or so of seeds you can definitely nix the wheelbarrow and mix your seed starting soil and water in a large bucket or plastic tub (so long as you still have the soil block tool – available for purchase here).  Alternatively, you can purchase peat pellets for around $.10-.25 each in the vast majority of stores where gardening tools are sold.  They work well and are probably more cost efficient if you don’t need to plant seeds over the course of a whole season, have a small garden, or just want to experiment with gardening.  I’ll just explain the method we use on the farm to keep things simple.

1.) First, fill a wheelbarrow with your starter mix. You can purchase sterile, soil-free starter mix at the store or make your own.  It’s important to use sterile, soil-free mix to keep disease in check and reduce competition with weeds which helps seeds to germinate and grow strong.  As mentioned above, some make the argument for adding organic fertilizer so it’s up to you.

2.) Next you want to add water to the mix (probably with a hose) and kneed everything together until the soil is sufficiently damp and can clump together.  You can test if the soil is ready with the soil block tool – the blocks should come out without falling apart.  This step is really fun and will probably take you back to childhood.

3.) Once the mix is the right consistency you can begin making soil blocks.  Push the tool into the soil mixture as demonstrated below.

Push the tool into the soil to form compacted blocks

4.) Once you lift the block making tool, ensure that each block is full and compacted by rubbing additional soil over the bottom of the block tool with your hand, and scraping excess of the sides of the tool.

Check blocks for sufficient soil

5.) Test your soil blocks to make sure they stay together by releasing them from the block tool.  They should look like the ones pictured below.  Each block forms with an indentation in the center to drop in a seed.


Seed Blocks with center indentation for inserting seed

6.) Continue forming blocks and releasing them into a plastic tray (where they will remain and be cared for until they are ready to be transplanted into your garden). You may be able to get used trays second hand from a garden store, from a local dump, or from neighbors with extras so check out local resources before buying new ones!

Plant seeds into trays of soil blocks

7.) Once you have filled your trays with soil blocks it’s time to plant seeds.  It’s a good idea to label your seeds with the type of plant and date of seed starting to keep things organized; a popsicle stick inserted against one side of the tray will do the trick.  At the farm we drop one or two seeds into each seed block and rather than covering them with soil we gently twist them under with the end of a permanent marker.  It’s a super easy trick and the seed/soil don’t stick to the marker so you can move quickly through a tray putting gentle pressure on each seed with the marker end and giving it a little twist.

8.) Once your seed trays are ready you can move them to a cold frame which protects against the elements (excess rain, cold temps, etc.)  Alternatively you can start them indoors as long as you can find a warm spot for them to remain undisturbed.  Some seeds prefer darkness during germination so check the seed packet, but otherwise, indoor lighting will do.  Generally avoid direct sunlight for seeds started indoors.  Cover indoor seed trays with plastic wrap or a plastic dome cover to help the soil retain moisture.

Seed trays stored in a cold frame awaiting germination

9.) Water your soil and seedlings sufficiently so they don’t dry out in the sun.  Once you seeds germinate and form seedlings they can be transplanted to your garden.  You should wait for true leaves to form and for them to be large enough to tolerate transplanting and the elements they will experience in the garden (sun, water, wind, micro-organisms, etc.)  More information is available on each seed packet and online for specific seed varieties which can help you decide where and when to plant each seed.

Seeds beginning to germinate in seed trays

Good luck!

Additional Resources:

Starting seeds indoors
Soil blockers and supplies
10 seed starting tips


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