Here at the Florida house, we are in garden zone 9A. The last frost date is around March 6th. We like to plant our garden in February because we find that the bugs are much less of an issue when we start early. I thought I was proactive this year and did my first round of seed starts on January 9th shortly after wrapping up the holidays. Realistically I was still a little behind, considering most seed packets recommend starting seeds indoors 8 to 12 weeks ahead of time. I would have needed to do my seed starting for zone 9A in December!
Since we are currently in the RV, we don’t have the space for a formal seed starting area. I did convert a dog kennel into a mini greenhouse to give my seedlings the best protection from the weather that I could. The seedlings were tucked snuggly on their seed starting mats.
Unfortunately, Florida had some of the coldest weather we have had in about 4 years. While the cold snaps were short, they wreaked havoc on my fall garden and my seedlings. I had a little more than a dozen survive the cold snap. So, we start again.
Seed Startling Trays
This year Philip gave me some seed starting trays with peat pellets. These trays come with small hard peat pellets that fit into the sections of the tray. To prepare the pellets for planting, you simply add water to the tray and allow the peat pellets to fully expand. Peat pellets are held together by a fine netting. When the seedlings are large enough to transplant into a larger pot, I loosen the netting at the bottom of the pellet to allow the roots to fully expand. The netting is biodegradable made from cornstarch and will simply decompose into the soil.
Philip bought me two types of trays. The major difference is the size of the peat pellets: 36 mm and 50 mm pellets. The 50 mm peat pellets are labeled for tomato starts, but I can’t find any difference between the pellets other than size. The smaller pellets outgrow their space more quickly and need to be transplanted into larger pots as the roots quickly overwhelm the pellets.
Other Seed Starting Options
There are many other seed starting options to using peat pellets. Here are a few alternatives.
Some gardeners use reusable pots for starting their seedlings. Quality seed starting pots should last for multiple seasons especially if well cared for. The initial investment for reusable seedling cups is greater. If you are starting with a small garden, you can invest in several each year to build your stash and your garden over time. One of the downsides to using reusable cups is they need to be cleaned and sterilized between each use. Seed starting trays to house the pots and humidity domes are an additional expense can also be added for ease of use.
Biodegradable Seedling Pots
Biodegradable seed pots are another option. The cups are made from biodegradable peat material. The gardener would treat these like other reusable pots. Filling them with seed starter mix and planting seeds. Like the peat pellets I use, they degrade in the soil. When it’s time to plant the seedlings, you plant the entire pot. These pots are useful because the roots are not disturbed by replanting. Some plants are more sensitive to their root systems being disturbed. The peat pots come in a few options, individual cups or seedling trays. One of the downsides of these pots is they can start to break apart before you are ready to plant them, especially if overwatered.
Plastic Seedling Cell Trays
Another option is to purchase one-use seedling cell trays similar to those used when purchasing seedlings in a nursery. They are made of very thin plastic. I like them because I can push the entire bottom of the tray up and push the seedling out of the tray. One downside is that trays are needed to be able to transport the plants. Once the soil is added, they are not strong enough to support moving them. If you are planting a lot of seedlings, this might be a good option. They are relatively inexpensive to purchase the trays themselves, but the support trays and humidity domes are an added expense.
I love the idea of seed blocking! Seed blocking is done with a specially designed tool that creates compacted seed blocks. These blocks don’t have any cups to purchase or clean, the soil is simply compacted into a square block. When it’s time to blank, the entire block is planted. I love the idea of little waste and reusability of this tool.
While I love the idea of seed blocking, there are some cons that outweigh the benefit to our farm size. The soil needs some prep to create a suitable seed starting medium that will hold together. The seed blocking tool is an investment (check out Shop this Post to check it out). Most of the tools I have seen make a small number of blocks at one time, some as small as 4 blocks. There is also a lot of extra work to prepare the seed blocks prior to planting. For these reasons, seed blocking is not a good fit for our farm.
Another thrifty option is to reuse what you already have. Yogurt cups, sour cream containers, and margarine tubs are all good options to use for seedling cups. The bottoms of the cups should be pierced to allow for proper drainage.
Planting the Seeds
Once I had my peat pellets prepared, it was time to plant the seeds. Some seeds like beans are easy to plant. The seeds are large, easy to handle, and easy to plant. Other seeds like celery are very tiny and much harder to manage.
In my peat pellets, I planted one seed per pellet where I could. Some gardeners plant two seeds per seed cup to ensure a higher germination rate. Seedlings can be thinned as the plants grow, removing the weaker plant.
The seed package should provide the information you need to successfully plant your seeds. While the information varies by manufacturer, many contain planting depth, thinning instructions, days to germination, number of weeks needed to plant ahead indoors, and days to maturity.
To plant very tiny seedlings, I use a pencil or skewer to handle the tiny seeds. The tiny seeds will stick to the tip on the pencil and allow you to place them exactly where you want them. If necessary, slightly moisten the tip of the pencil.
Caring for Seedlings
Once planted I put my seedling trays onto seed starting mats. These are heating pads that are set to the optimum temperature to sprout seeds. Most seeds don’t need light until they germinate. Temperature and moisture are most important in the pre germination stage. When first planting, a humidity dome can be placed over the seedling tray. This helps maintain the moisture level in the tray until the seeds germinate.
Once germinated, plants need good light. Many gardeners use grow lights placed very close to the plants. Good even light that the plants don’t need to chase ensure solid seedlings. In our situation, it is more difficult for me to add the grow lights. The seedlings I started late summer did wonderfully, however, this spring has been more challenging for me without a greenhouse that I can more carefully control the growing environment. Most gardeners also put a fan blowing gently on their seedlings at sporadic times to emulate wind. This encourages the plants to root deeply to remain standing. I miss our greenhouse, check it out.
Once the seedlings have grown appropriately. They need to be hardened off before transplanting outside. This is a simple process of exposing the plants to cooler outdoor temperatures in short stretches. Each day the seedlings would need to be moved in and out to do this process gradually. Each time, the length of time can be extended, until the plants have become fully accustomed to the outdoor temperatures. Failure to harden plants off successfully can lead to a devastating loss of your seedlings.
Our Second Round of Seedlings
Since very few of the two trays of seedling I planted in January have survived, I have replanted in both of my seedling trays. I reused the peat pellets since they are still in good condition. There is nothing wrong with them, the plants simply failed to germinate. As temperatures increase, its possible they could still germinate. For the most part, I planted the same seeds into the same seed pellets. I had kept good notes of the seeds planted and followed them for replanting.
One of my seed trays had flooded. I am a little concerned those peat pellets may be too wet. I will be monitoring them for germination. This is my last chance to seed start this spring. Once we return from our spring workcation in Kentucky, I will be planting the container garden. Anything at that point will be direct sown.
In our house, Philip is the gardener. He is much more knowledgeable about gardening. As we make the move to the homestead, his plate will be full with construction projects. I’m working hard to improve my not-so-green thumb and my gardening skills. The 2022 Spring Garden is bound to be full of learning experiences. Come along and learn with me.
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About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.