Seed Starting

Northern Colorado: Seed Starting for Beginners – Lauren Dittman, Home Grown Food

Starting your own seeds can be an educational and rewarding experience for the home gardener. The following information is meant to serve as a beginner’s guide and local resource link for the Northern Colorado Gardener.

Why start your own seeds?  Why not!  Some plants you need never start indoors or in a greenhouse, they actually do better when started outside such as: carrots, corn, spinach, potatoes, lettuce, grains (from wheat to quinoa), sunflowers,  zucchini and most squash, cucumbers (okay, I’m getting into debatable territory here), and the list goes on.

Seeds that need to be started indoors can generally be started for less money (especially when you take into account that many supplies will be able to be reused for years to come) and with more available variety than those bought at the greenhouse.

There are 7 resources you need to have in place to successfully start seeds for your garden:

  • Seeds
  • Location
  • Water
  • Light
  • Containers
  • Seed Starting Medium
  • Nutrients

I will try to to provide a sampling of the full spectrum of options for each resource from free to high-tech, but we would all love to hear the creative ways you meet the needs of your seedlings.

  1. Seeds: It all starts here.  Where? Well, we are lucky enough in Northern Colorado to have many resources for seeds at our fingertips, the most encouraging of which are our local seed swaps that we hold each year on the first weekend of March at Avogadro’s Number.Seed swaps are local, community, free or small donation events where you can bring your seeds from last year (seeds you are proud of and seeds you just have too many of) to trade for other varieties!  Meet local experts and novices alike to get the support you need to grow.  Bring your extra seeds to swap.At our Home Grown Food Seed Swap we provide a complimentary flat in which you can plant your seeds and then bring them home to start indoors.  This yearly event is free.  Donations are graciously accepted, Home Grown Food Fundraiser seeds will be available for purchase (small packets for $1.00 each), and please support Avo’s any way you can, as they let us meet for free!If you can’t make it to a seed swap, or don’t have any in your area, you can also get a large variety of seeds at your local greenhouses. Check out our Google map for greenhouses in the Fort Collins area, all of which have awesome variety. The vast array of seeds available may be confusing, but there are a few guidelines I like to go by:
    • Look for Colorado seed companies for drought and temperature – hardy varieties.
    • Organic and heirloom seeds are also another good label to watch for.
    • “Traditional” seeds are not necessarily horrible, either.  They are disease resistant, reliable, and most were bred before genetic engineering using a cross-pollination technique that produces a hardy, F1-hybrid.
    • Generally, as a home gardener you will not purchase a GMO seed.  Some of the “evil” associated with “traditional” seeds (Burpee, etc.) has to do with:

      a)     the morality of genetically patenting seed

      b)    non-organic seed prep treatments (anti-fungals, etc) applied to seeds before shipment

      c)     F1 hybrids will not reliably produce seed which has the same traits as the parent plant, so you do not want to include them in a breeding regimen. (note: not all “traditional seeds are F1 hybrids, generally the seed packet will tell you).

      As a beginning gardener, some solace may be found in the reliability and price of these “traditional” seeds (as opposed to heirloom) and many companies are starting to offer organic preps of the traditionals.Seed packets can be confusing, so here is a link to a brief glossary of terms you may come across, compliments of Seeds of Change.

    If you really are ready to start scouring the earth for seed varieties more adapted to our climate, rarer, or the perfect cross-breeder for your seed propagating experiments, please check the following catalogs.

    Local Seeds of Distinction:

    Nationwide Excellence:

    Please let HGF know of any reliable seed companies we have forgotten.

  2. Location: Seeds can be started all over the place.  Some prefer starting outside in cooler temperatures, such as your greens and radishes.  Others are best to start outdoors in warmer temperatures, such as carrots and squash.  The seed packet will often give you some clues.The Home Grown Food seed starting chart is also another great resource to help determine if you want to start your seeds indoors or outdoors.Here in Fort Collins, our growing season is approximately 120 days, from May 15th to September 15th. These are the frost-free days, or the days we probably won’t see any killing frosts at night. Generally, if the “days to harvest” is under 90, you’ve picked out a good variety.It gets confusing because some species are labeled with their “days to harvest” as the time from germination to harvest, while others (tomatoes, peppers) are labeled with their “days to harvest” as the time from transplant to harvest.Generally, if the packet tells you to “start seeds indoors” the “days-to-harvest” is transplant (between May 15th and June 15th) to harvest.

    Alright, so you have the seeds you need to start indoors.  Either you want a friend with a greenhouse (HGF is looking for lots of friends with a little extra greenhouse space, please e-mail us if you have any… please) or you start your seeds in a south or east-facing window. West windows can get too intense and dry out too fast, and North windows may be too cold and will not provide the light required.

    If you do not have an east or south window, consider finding a greenhouse or purchasing supplemental lighting.

    Supplying bottom heat is pretty essential if you are looking for a high germination rate.  This can be provided by some folks’ refrigerators (the older ones will be warm on top…. but remember to move the seedlings into light once they have germinated) or with a string of indoor/ outdoor christmas lights underneath your pots (the style ones, the new energy efficient ones don’t give off heat….. I would look into finding holiday lights at Big Lots on the south side of F.C., they always have holiday lights for $2 – $5 a strand … you need to fit aprox. 3 – 4 feet of lights underneath each flat of plants to get the equivalent heat of one of those expensive heat mats… Check out this website to see an example of the set-up I’m talking about.)

    There are also heat mats that are probably, how do I put it…. safer, but more expensive.  You can pick them up at many of our local greenhouses, including the Plantorium and Creekside Garden Center.

    Take into account that the seeds will need to be consistently moist, and that depending on your bottom heat, lighting, and container methods, you may have to mist water 4 times a day when seedlings are young or you risk drying them out.  If you are lucky enough to be considering putting up a small greenhouse for home use, I highly recommend you check out this website The material used to cover this space-utilizing design has the same insulative value as glass, but will not shatter in our hail storms. Also, it does not yellow!

  3. Water: Water makes it happen.  Initially, the only thing your seeds need is water.  A seed must imbibe (absorb) sufficient water to break down the stored sugars to metabolize them and begin growing.  If the seed dries out when it is germinating, the germinating process may not start again.Some seeds with tough seed coats benefit from scarification (lightly scratching the seed coat with fine sand paper or your nail) so that it is easier to imbibe the water.To apply water to your starting seeds, misting the soil surface with a spray bottle to the point of saturation (dripping) 3-4 times a day is recommended to avoid washing away the soil or disturbing the seeds.Consider allowing the water you will use to sit out over night in an open container before you use it.  This allows the salts and chlorine to evaporate a little, those salts can build up and be harmful to your seedlings.

    For larger operations, consider hooking up a misting system, in which you use 1/4″ drip tube with drip misters placed every 12″ – 18″. (Try Ace hardware or Bath Nursery for your drip supplies)

    Hook the drip tube to an affordable fountain pump (available at hobby stores) submerged in a 5 gallon bucket of water.  Plug the pump into a wall outlet timer and run it for 5 – 10 min every 6 hours. The bucket will need to be refilled depending on the gallonage of your drip misters.  The bonus for this set-up is that you will easily be able to apply your worm compost tea when your seedlings get older. However, it is too messy for your average indoor space.

    The main thing to take away from this is that consistent water is everything. When the seedlings get bigger, misting by hand won’t put down enough water.  Consider bottom-watering your seedlings.  However, it is very important to never let your seedlings sit in water for long periods of time, whether you water them from the top or bottom. If the soil is stagnantly moist, the perfect conditions for white flies, damping off, grey mold, etc. will threaten the success of your plants.

  4. Light: Seeds do not need supplemental light until the cotyledons (first leaf-looking thing-a-ma-jigs) have unfolded.  In fact, too much light too early can be harmful, so make sure you plant your seeds as deep as is recommended on the seed packet, or at least twice as deep as the seed is big.
  5. Supplemental lighting will boost the health of your plants significantly in a south or east facing window, too, to increase the intensity of light and elongate the hours of light your seedlings can get.

    Most vegetables would be really excited to get 14-18 hours of light a day… but too much light (24 hours) and they won’t grow any roots!

    There are full-spectrum bulbs you can buy at Ace Hardware, or I’ve read 2 “hot” bulbs (red side of the spectrum, or “warm” light bulbs) to 1 “cool” light bulb (blue-side of the spectrum) will suffice.  Maybe keep an eye out for these at a re-use place such as ReSource or Habitat for Humanity.

    Lights need only be 8″ or so from the top of the plants, so hanging the lights helps you by:

    a)     preventing you from having to build a frame.

    b)    you can adjust the height of the lights.

    To conserve space, you may look into purchasing an old bookshelf or metal rack from ReSource, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, etc.  Or there are nifty seed starting frames (or mini-greenhouses) for sale on the internet that are all covered in plastic, handy for keeping seedlings moist and for moving outside in late April to ‘harden off’ your seedlings.