It’s been about 4 weeks since I started my little seeds. After one week, their petite leaves popped up from their snug mossy havens, and I could barely distinguish the different varieties had I not labeled them. But nearly a month later, I’m overwhelmed with pre-pubescent seedlings and they’re getting antsy and cramped! Almost every seed I dropped inside the soil has sprouted. They’re growing fiercely and competing for sun and water. Now that they’re mostly 3 or more inches tall, they’re strong enough to be thinned and transplanted into larger pots.
From left to right: Calabrese cantaloupe, Genovese basil, Peperoni di Senise
Caring for your Infant Seedlings
The key to happy & healthy seedlings is keeping them in a warm, comforable environment and ensuring they are moist all the time. I’ve gotten into a fairly consistent daily watering/sunshine routine. In the morning, I give them a healthy spritz from a spray bottle of warm water (it’s better than shocking and overwhelming them with a freezing, heavy pour from a faucet or something, as if you were drowning them!) Then I leave them be with a few rays of sunshine for an hour or two as they sit on the countertop of my kitchen. After they’ve warmed up, I take them outside to get fresh air and direct sunlight to allow them to gradually “harden off.” This is ABSOLUTELY imperative for the seedlings because they need to be exposed to the sun, temperatures, and winds since they’ll progress to live in that environment. If you keep them sheltered all day indoors, the plants will completely be shocked when they move outdoors and may not survive. Think of it like tempering eggs when making custard. Add too much hot milk all at one time and the mixture curdles!
At the same time, however, you cannot leave them out all day in the sun. The moisture in the soil evaporates so quickly (so keep checking to make sure they aren’t parched) and leave them out for only 1-2 hours at a time and bring them indoors for the rest of the day. They’re happy to get a bit of sun here and there and don’t mind hanging out inside the rest of the day.
I keep them company. Since they’re on the kitchen counter, they watch me cook. I always think they grow faster when they infuse the fumes from my San Marzano tomato sauce, or if I’m chopping basil and parsley next to them. It’s like they can sense their fate and are excited to be a part of it (and I’d rather imagine them excited about growing into abundant caregivers than fearing their inevitable destiny of consumption). I imagine each one is like The Giving Tree, where it always extends its selfless branched to provide the nourishments I crave. I can’t wait for those San Marzano tomatoes!!!!
The zucchini seedlings were the first to become ridiculously large—didn’t anticipate its growth spurt to soar above the others. They are about 2 weeks more mature than the rest of the bunch and continue to get larger each day! I should have held off in sprouting them for 2-4 weeks so that I could have directly transplanted them into my raised garden bed, but I found large pots that will suit their size for the next few weeks (until my soil is ready and the last frost has passed). Look how huge they are!
Thinning Out Seedlings for Transplant
You can do this one of two ways: play God and decide which seedling is strongest to survive and grow up, thus eliminating the weakest (I didn’t have the heart to kill any), OR you could just find a way to make room for everyone! Yes, always let them live. I may have entirely too many plants to handle in the end, but I’m sure someone would like an heirloom plant of their own (any takers? email me). And also, last year I had sprouted a dozen plants and only two survived. Though I’m not nearly as neglectful and clueless this time around, I’m not taking any chances. I’d rather have an abundance than none!
First, carefully pop out the soil from the container (in my case, I just need to peel off the netting).
Then, gently scratch the the dirt away until you get to the roots. Don’t ever pull the seedlings out from they dirt—yanking them will damage the stalks and their roots, resulting in sudden death. Just keep fingering the dirt away until you feel the roots. Gently separate each seedling from the bunch without tearing. If its a huge clump, sometimes soaking the ends in water will help loosen it up.
You should have their new transplant destination ready to go before you separate the dirt from the roots. I’ve used old 2″ plastic flower containers we’ve stored over the years and a couple of 4×4″ plastic pots. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a drainage hole on the bottom.
Fill them with a nutrient rich mixture (buy the bag that literally says “potting soil”) as it’s full of fun phospherous things…like bat guano, worm castings, as well as decomposed bark and other light matter. These all make for a great new space for tender roots to grow—it retains water really well and stays moist, and at the same time allows enough oxygen to flow and water to drain instead of sit and clog.
Shovel the soil about half way up the container. Using your finger, make a hole for the transplant to sink into. Work quicky—after separating/thinning the seedlings immediate submerge the roots in the soil. Add a handful of soil around the plant, gently packing it down to keep the stalk upright.
You should do this in the shade, as to keep the trauma level low (hot sun + seedling sitting out of soil = fish out of water). Immediately, and plentifully, water them once they are settled. I’ve ordered a bag of worm castings from Sustainable Seed Co. and dissolve 1 tablespoon per gallon of warm water, and added about 1/2 c per transplant. It helps the soil to aerate and conserve water, as well as gives them a bit of a boost for growing. Keep the plants in the shade, and move back indoors, as they will have been through a lot. Keep a watchful eye and take great care to help their transition!!