How to Raise Healthy Seedlings

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

Seed starting has always been a challenge to me. Not because I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, but because my scattered side makes an appearance every year, usually around my birthday in January.

I understand that seedlings need to be planted in rich, fine soil, not course or chunky like potting soil for already established plants (the kind you use for houseplants or the flower garden outside, sometimes with white pieces of perlite and very small chips of wood) and the only way a seed will truly be happy and WANT to grow, is with the right amount of light and at a temperature above 50-60˚F.

Did I forget to mention watering? Yeah…yeah I did.

Summer 2018- nasturtiums in a pot

So…what else have I done in the past? I’ve used the big bag of over wintered potting soil from the depths of my mother’s garden shed, placing the seedlings in old trays of chunky soil and making their home for the next 4-10 weeks in the upstairs study of my parents’ house.

Of the several times I tried starting plants from seeds, I’ve had minor success. Most of what’s keeping me going year-after-year are the seeds that do turn into zinnias, nasturtiums, and sunflowers. There are even hollyhocks still showing out every summer since I sowed them directly into the alley of my childhood home five years ago.

I’ve never reflected on a growing season, I kind of just sit with the basket-of-zucchini-finale or the last bouquet of zinnias that held on through November (yes, climate change is real) and then flow into whatever season’s next. I absolutely love it, I live for it.

Now, I’m reflecting. I’ve made more steps up in the past year than I have my entire life, I feel it in my soul, and I’ve seen it in my seeds.

Almost a year ago I was sowing seeds in empty egg cartons: cucumbers, zucchini, zinnias, sunflowers I think, and maybe a few snapdragons. They were perched upstairs on a chest in the study with the southeast facing windows. I left my mom to babysit them while I worked away from home, with a spray bottle full of water to keep them watered day and night and my faith and hope that that year would be a bountiful one. I wasn’t all there to put the effort in and I didn’t go out my way.

Once the second set of leaves showed up—you know, the pretty ones that distinguish it from another seedling—I planted them into a small slit-eyed patch of fresh potting soil that I basically dug into clay in the backyard of my home at the time. Everything I planted grew, the cucumbers long and vining through the zucchini plants and other lengths of acorn squash (with a tomato plant tucked off to one corner). Almost all of them produced something I guess you could call edible, the only ones that were suitable enough to eat came from the tomato plant and the vine of acorn squash. The zinnias and sunflowers also sprouted and bloomed beautifully! Some of the sunflowers I even planted straight into the ground once it was warm enough.

May I note that this past year I also got two Chilean glory vines from the farmers market and didn’t even get a trellis for either of them. Poor babies were struggling to climb up five-foot teepees of bamboo sticks. I try to avoid regrets but there was this lavender and royal purple Clematis at True Value that I still think about and wish I would’ve invested in instead of the glory vines which I ended up getting tired of and throwing out (I know, ruthless, but sometimes as a gardener you have to make hard decisions about what makes you happy and what feels happy in your environment, some things aren’t meant to be). You best believe I’m getting a clematis plant this year.

The year before last, there were only a few trays of 6-pack start boxes filled with regular degular soil and sweet peas, perched upstairs on a chest in the study with the southeast facing windows. I drowned most of them because instead of using a gentle spray bottle, I used an old plastic pitcher. The poor seedlings were sloshed around by the stream from the kind of pitcher that traditionally pours lemonade or beer. I can’t remember which ones survived, but the next thing I knew my dad had brought home a Miracle grow seed-starting tray with small expanding discs of soil. Those zinnias were my best ones yet and it made my stomach turn recalling the documentaries about GMO’s and all that Monsanto BS, ‘scuse me.

Summer 2019- a gathering of flowers I clipped from my front patio in the background

I’ve tried many techniques to growing seeds, in a scattered and hopeful kind of way. I make do with what I have, and do just enough to light sparks here and there, throughout all the seasons. But this summer, I want my garden to look how I really feel. When I say garden I mean part of my moms backyard and a mix of about 8-10 pots on the front porch of my apartment. Every pot, every corner and row of flowers will be bountiful and representative of how ya girl is feeling at the present moment. I’ve been building up to this growing season, not realizing how important those failed, half-ass, uninvested moments were to this new passion and motivation to grow a bounty of flowers. It won’t be my best, but it will be my best yet, in the same kind of hope that every year following this one will be more giving than the last.

As a late Christmas present I sat down with my Auntie Reener and looked through Floret Farm’s online seed catalog. We ordered numerous packets of seeds, trying to color coordinate most of them. After they arrived in the mail we wrote up a plan, including what we needed, when we would be planting which seeds, and where we wanted to sow them.

This is the year that I truly dedicate myself to the things that simply make me happy, and to nourishing my creative side. It’s a decision I’ve been solidifying slowly but surely, and I’ve finally got all my passion in one place.