At this time last year, Humboldt County was about to go into lockdown along with most of the state, country and, well, world. Toilet paper was being hoarded, and you couldn't find a sanitizing wipe anywhere. And seeds! Garden seeds became a hot commodity as many people decided to spend their time sheltering in place by starting a garden. My helper and I thought we'd get ahead of the curve and stop in at a local nursery to pick up a few things. Seems we weren't the only ones with this idea, as the lines went around the entire storefront and most seed racks were stripped clean. This was just the beginning of what we thought was going to be a few weeks or, at most, a few months.
This year, I've heard of some delays in getting seeds from online companies but they and local nurseries are better prepared this time around. March is a great time to get those garden seeds started. If you're nervous doing so on your own, we are blessed to have quite a few plant nurseries here in Humboldt who have done the work for you — you can pick up a six-pack (or 10) at local garden centers.
Starting seeds isn't that complicated but it does help to have the right tools handy. Ideally, it's best to start seeds in a soilless mix — you can start your seeds in one of the gazillion available potting soils/planting mixes but you'll have better luck with a soilless blend. You can even make your own. I use either Foxfarm's Light Warrior or G&B's Seed Starter. If you'd like to make your own, it's easy to do with just three ingredients found in your local garden centers: one part coco coir, one part vermiculite and one part perlite. Mix these in a bucket or small tub. I use warm water because I mix it with my hands but you can use any temperature. Mix thoroughly until it's damp throughout, like a wrung-out sponge. It's surprising how much water this mix will need to get evenly moist.
After mixing up your starter mix, fill your pots, whether six-packs, 2-inch pots or even reused small plastic containers (make sure you have drainage holes or the little seeds and seedlings will drown). Read and follow the instructions on the seed packet. Some seeds need light to germinate but most will benefit from a light sprinkling of the soilless mix on top. Set the pots in a tray that will hold water and, if you want, you can put a plastic dome over the top to help retain moisture and keep the seeds from drying out too quickly. Remove the dome after the seeds have germinated. All seeds will benefit from bottom warmth but you can start seeds without heating mats. A few shop lights and a shelving unit is an easy way to start seeds. Put the lights on a timer and leave them on for 15 hours. Setting up a fan to blow over the seedlings helps prevent disease. If you have a south-facing window that gets plenty of sunlight, you can also start your seeds there, but it's critical to rotate them so that they don't reach for the light and become leggy.
As the plants grow taller, adjust the shop lights to a few inches above the tops of the seedlings. After a few weeks, supplement the plants with some nutrients, as soilless mixes don't contain any nutrients for growing plants. A little liquid fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, works fine. You can also make a compost tea from your well-aged compost to feed the plants. If possible, try to water from the bottom so as to not displace seeds and plants as they grow. Let them dry out a little between waterings because soggy soil is worse than soil that's too dry and can lead to damping off, a fungal disease.
Not sure how deep to plant your seeds? Seed packets contain a wealth of information, such as planting depth and time needed to grow before putting them in the garden. The packet may also tell you whether to sow seeds directly in the garden, as not all seeds need to be started indoors.
Right now is a good time to start those hot weather crops: tomatoes, peppers and corn. Wait a bit before you start your pumpkins and squash plants, as those need the warm days of summer to mature properly. Eddie Tanner's excellent book The Humboldt Kitchen Gardener has two charts with the best time to start seeds, one for the coast and one for inland locations. You can find it at your local bookstore or garden center.
Once your babies are big enough to plant in the garden, don't just pop them in the ground or they'll keel over from the shock. Harden them off by putting the pots outside every day, increasing the number of hours each day until a week or so has passed. Be sure and keep them watered and sheltered during this transition period. Then they're ready to plant. I'll talk about where to plant them next time.
Julia Graham-Whitt (she/her) is owner and operator of the landscaping business Two Green Thumbs.