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Seed Starting Soil Mix

Starting Seedlings is a sacred art all its own! It starts with the ‘soil’ they are planted in.

Number 1 is in the Earth herself!

Whether as is, or amended, planting in the ground, in good loose loamy soil, is just about as nutritious as it gets! The soil organisms, mycorrhizal fungi, oxygen, moisture, bird, animal poop and worm castings, and decayed leaves/plants, minerals, create a rich humus. Humus holds water. Tiny roots find their way through and a thriving plant is born.

Worm castings are a special addition because they help with immunity and, they speed germination!

The advantage of starting seeds in the earth is they don’t have to be transplanted later. Some seedlings have super delicate root systems, others, like carrots, put down tap roots instantly and transplanting can damage those important roots. In the case of carrots, that quick root IS the carrot!

You need to wait until the last average frost date, and start them when both air and soil temps are right for that plant. You can always take a chance and plant earlier in the ground, that there won’t be a stretch of exceptionally cold weather and no freezes. Of course when we say ‘average,’ you are still taking a chance. If there is a late freeze, you either start all over again or head to your local nursery for transplants. Some gardeners, who especially want that particular variety (that they can’t get at nurseries) do backup indoor starts just in case this very thing happens.

DIY Seed Starting Mixes

If it isn’t a year round in-the-ground plant, you get a 6 to 8 week’s time advantage by starting seedlings earlier indoors or in greenhouses before the last average frost date. It is important to get indoor early-started seedlings in the ground when they are mature enough. One way to remedy that problem is to plant two or three rounds. One will be right when conditions outdoors are right.

Start with peat moss or coir. Blend it with treated compost that has been heated to 150 degrees to kill off pathogens/weed seeds. Add worm castings, no more than 10% by volume.

Damping off, kinda like crib death, is a sad foe of seedlings. No fix, no cure. The baby just topples overnight and it’s over. A 2005 North Carolina State University study found it’s not the mixture but what’s on top of the soil that counts most. Damping off differences almost disappeared between commercial organic seed-starting mixtures and various homemade mixtures after all of the seeds were covered with vermiculite instead of a planting medium.

Cinnamon for Seedling Damping Off Disease Prevention!

The super simplest home prevention is Cinnamon! Just sprinkle it on the soil! Sprinkle on plant injuries and they will heal. It is a rooting hormone. Mildew, mold, fungal diseases? Mix 4 tablespoons cinnamon in a half gallon warm water, shake it vigorously, steep overnight. Strain through a sieve or coffee filter and put it in a spray bottle. Add ¼ teaspoon liquid dish soap as a surfactant, lightly spritz your plants, undersides and tops of leaves! (In Santa Barbara area buy it in big containers at Smart & Final.) Also, it repels ants!

What is Vermiculite?! It is composed of two natural minerals, absorbs and retains several times its own weight in moisture while still holding some oxygen.

Rodale’s April Johnson says seedlings need a loose, well-drained fine medium. Don’t use potting soil – often, it’s too rich, doesn’t drain well enough. April, who has experimented many years, prefers this mix:

4 parts screened compost
1 part perlite
1 part vermiculite
2 parts coir

Barb Fick, consumer horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, explains that our typical backyard soil is too compacted, full of weed seeds and it is not pasteurized, causing seedling diseases and death, often doesn’t drain as well as seedling mixes. It can develop a crust that prevents seedlings from pushing through the soil. Barb’s recipe is

one-third pasteurized soil or finished compost
one-third sand, vermiculite or perlite
one-third peat moss

Or, just use half peat moss and half perlite, vermiculite or sand.

You can see from this last combination, that soil or compost is not needed to get a seed started! However, if you don’t use compost, when your seedling gets true leaves (the first two after the cotyledons), it gets hungry as the nutrition in the seed is used up! Give it a spritz of half strength fish emulsion. Some nurseries lace their planting mixes with those little tiny fertilizer pellets. Your baby plant gets nutrition when it needs it.

Before planting, clean your pots, trays and flats. Rinse them in one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water solution to kill plant disease microorganisms that could weaken or kill your tender young seedlings.

Wet your soil before you plant. Keep adding your starter mix until you get the level you want. Leave enough room to add a thin layer of vermiculite on top after you plant your seeds.

Chopsticks can be used in a couple helpful ways. Mark one of them at 1/4, 1/2, and 1″ on the stick. That way you can get your seeds at the right planting depth. Using your marked stick keeps you mindful; planting goes faster with less wondering! Seeds planted too shallow can dry out, too deep they take longer or never come up – they can use up all their nutrients before they make it.

If you are installing delicate sprouts, make a planting hole, and if you are good with chopsticks, grasp the sprout gently, carefully place it. Smooth the soil, water gently. Check out Seed Soaking/Presprouting Tips & Ideas!

Rather than top watering, causing your seeds to be washed, bunched to the side, buried too deep, or uncovered, or tiny just-starting seedlings to be damaged, you can put your planting containers in a tray with water in it and let the water wick up into your seedling mix. Wicking is good; all the soil gets wetted. Keep a spray bottle handy for any top watering you think they need. Set it on mist to start.

Here are another couple recipes!

4 parts fine compost
2 parts coir or peat moss
1 part vermiculite
1/2 part perlite

If you don’t want to sift compost:

3 parts peat moss or coir
1 part vermiculite
1/2 part perlite
1/4 tsp lime/gallon peat moss (don’t add if using coir)

You see gardeners have their preferences, even the pros differ! Go by your own intuition. Maybe you will use one mix for some plants, another mix for others. You own mix might be different than any of these. Experiment, but maybe try an old standard at the same time just in case your mix doesn’t work. Might take you a few seasons to find what works best for the particular plants you grow.

Readymade Seed Starting Mix

Pre-made mixes have advantages! First, mainly that they are premade! Just go get ’em! But, just in case, do read the ingredients list. They come in small or large bags. The mix is pasteurized. Some of them have wetting agents. Yes! Others have lime for pH balance to stop damping off. Instead of buying all kinds of bags, then storing all the extra leftover stuff, you use what you use, store the one bag, and that’s it! Unless you have a large scale operation and have specific needs, premade mixes are perfect!

Have fun raising your baby plants!

Updated 12.23.18

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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