Califonia Bountiful

Gardening: Ready, set, start... with seeds!

Feb./Mar. 2012 California Bountiful magazine

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For me, February and March are the beginning of the gardening season. It's like the gun that goes off signaling the start of the Kentucky Derby. Truly, there's nothing more rewarding than a garden filled with plants you grew from seed. It's also the time garden centers tempt us with seed-starting paraphernalia: plastic trays of peat pellets, stacks of peat pots and plastic lids that mimic greenhouse conditions. What works and what doesn't? I decided to buy them and try them.

Peat pots are designed to plant directly into the garden with the plant. The peat stays moist and pliable when you water, so the roots grow through the pot. This supposedly minimizes transplant shock because you aren't disturbing any roots in the process. You fill the pots with good planting mix, plant the seeds, water, and that's it. The problem is the peat takes moisture away from the soil and, whenever the pot dries, it throttles any roots that have crept through the peat. They must be kept moist at all times. I've tried to minimize this by tearing the bottom of the pot away when I plant, but continue to have trouble with plants in peat pots growing properly.

Peat pellets come compressed and dried. They have a netting cover to keep them intact. Typically, you purchase trays with slots for the pellets and a plastic lid that covers the tray while the seeds are germinating. You can buy more pellets and reuse the trays. Soak the pellets in the tray (directions come with the kit), push the seeds into the peat and cover with the clear plastic lid. They work best with small seeds, like basil or tomatoes. Once the seedlings are up, transplant them into bigger pots that hold more soil. Like peat pots, these are designed for the roots to grow through the netting, but, again, it works better in theory than in practice.

Presses for making newspaper pots have been around for years. They sell for about $20. It's a simple process and makes pots about 2 or 3 inches tall. Add soil, seeds, water, and wait. I was surprised how strong the newspaper pots were, though you don't want to handle them a lot when they are wet. And unlike the peat pots, the newspaper disintegrated quickly in the soil, so didn't restrict root growth.

Of all the seed-starting methods I've tried over the years, 4-inch plastic pots are my favorite. I save the pots when I buy plants from the nursery. They're big enough for a seedling to get to transplant size before putting it out in the garden. I plant every kind of seed in them, from basil to giant pumpkins. Once I'm finished with them, I rinse them out and put them away for next year.


  • Use a coarse planting mix. Don't use potting soil; it holds too much moisture and seeds can rot before they germinate.
  • Heat mats that you place under the potted seedlings help speed the process by warming the soil and encouraging germination.
  • Once seeds germinate, give them plenty of light so they don't get leggy (long, weak stems). If they begin to get leggy, run your hand gently across the seedlings a few times each day, or put a fan (on lowest setting) several feet away and let it blow across the seedlings. The motion makes the stems strong.
  • Put seedlings outside for some direct sun when the weather is mild enough. Keep extending the time they spend outside until they are acclimated to the outdoors. Then plant them in the garden.
  • Protect young seedlings from the cold by bringing them in at night or covering them with row covers.
  • Slugs, snails and earwigs love young, tender seedlings. Handpick these pests at night or use bait.
Peat pots
Available in many sizes. The trick is to keep them moist so the roots can grow through the pot.
Newspaper pots
Surprisingly strong and durable, easy to make, but you don't want to handle them too many times.
Peat pellets
Best for small seeds. You'll need to transplant them into the ground or a proper pot soon after germination.
Plastic pots
Save all the nursery pots for multiple reuse. Seedlings can stay in these until time to go into the ground.


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