Raising Really Good Seedlings


When you sow seed and raise seedlings, something magic this way comes. The magic brings wonder (so important in this know-it-all-age, don’t you think), it brings joy. Magic is good, important even; so are seeds. Mainly because they are our dinner, but also because they are our story.

Here’s how to raise really good seedlings.
1. Begin with fresh seed. Old ones have lost the will to germinate. Date your seed saving endeavours and only buy seed with a date on it. Find out if your old seed is viable by chitting it.

2. Do some housekeeping. Clean your trays to get all those tumbleweeds out of the corners (havens for bacteria). Water and a scrubbing brush will do nicely, followed by a day in the sun. Clean your pricking out spoons and dirty labels.

3. Gather your tool kit. Trays or pots, labels, a waterproof pen, spoons and seed raising mix.

4. Prepare your seed tray. Fill your tray with seed mix then water it until its nicely moist – not soggy! Another way to do this is to dip it in a tub of water until it is wet top to bottom. Take it out and let the water drain away. Smooth the top and firm it down with your hand (like a pat, not a thump). Put in your labels.

Raising seedlings in toliet rolls ediblebackyard nz

5. Sow your seed. Sow your seed at a depth of twice its width, so that a two seed high pile will be level with the top of the soil.

  • For fine seed (eg lettuce) sprinkle it on top of the firmed down seed mix, and lightly sprinkle seed mix on top. Firm it down.
  • For middle sized seed (eg cabbage), turn your spoon upside down and use the end to scratch out a groove. Sprinkle the seeds along the groove, cover and firm down.
  • For bigger seeds (eg pumpkin) make a hole with the end of your upside down spoon, pop the seed in, cover it and firm down.

6. Raise your seeds in a sunny, warm, protected place. Away from birds, slugs, dogs, cats and small children (in other words in heaven).

7. Watering. The perfect moisture level is barely. Not wet, not dry – barely moist. The best way to achieve this is to dip your tray of seedlings in a container of water – a bath, sink or plastic tray. This method (if you want to read more about it) is called bottom watering which makes for a fun time if you are teaching this to children and wicked adults. Bottom watering prevents dampening off, drying out, fungus and mould (foliage is always dry) and saves time as trays take days to dry out again – removing the daily chore.

bottom watering

Fill the container so the water comes about a third of the way up your seedling tray. Soak it until the top is moist, then take it out. This photo is taken just before it was fully soaked so you can see a few dry soil patches amongst the wet soil. Dry soil is light. Wet is dark. It’s time to water again when the top has completely dried out (it’ll still be moist underneath).  About 4 days for me at this time of year.

To make life easy and to keep your soil and seeds ambient, keep your tray of water in the same toasty warm place as your seedlings.

Once your seedlings are pricked on and growing well switch to overhead watering.

8. Prick them on. When your seedling babies have grown 2 leaves they need to be pricked on to new accommodation. Please don’t loose interest at this part, this is the best bit, the bit that makes for fast growing, strong seedlings.

  • Prepare a tray as above, and make holes ready to receive seedlings.
pricked on seedlings
  • Water the tray of seedlings by sitting it in a tub of water. This stops the roots tearing and breaking, and helps soil stick to the roots.
  • Weed out the scraggly, twisty, weak ones; choose the biggest, straightest, bestest ones.
  • Take a seedling by the leaf (not the stem – you’ll wreck the plumbing) and using your teaspoon dig it out. Still holding the leaf, plant it into the new hole, firming the soil in around it.
Pricking on - hold the leaf!
  • Do this in the cool of the evening. If you do it in the sun they’ll go flat stanley, they’ll be finished before they’ve begun.

9. Weekly liquid feeds really boost growth along. Use a weak fish or seaweed mix. If you have EM in the house add a bit for increased photosynthesis – solar power!

Trouble Shooting

soak your seedlings pre planting

Good seed raising mix If seed growth is slow it’ll be because your seed mixture wasn’t that great. Its romantic to think you’ll make all your own stuff but really its ok to buy things in! Find a good organic seed raising mix and you’ll notice an immediate difference. To make your own I like a third each of compost, vermiculite and coconut coir.

Watering is the other cause of poor growth. If seed mix is too dense then there’s no air pockets for those tiny roots and it’ll slow growth right down. Feel the moisture in your tray after watering is a great way to learn how much it takes to get it barely moist. Its tricky cos all the different size containers take different amounts – you’ll figure it out over time. Having the top of the seedtray a little dry is better than too wet. If its hot and you are away all day at work, sitting seed trays in a bit of water really helps keep growth steady through the day. 

Seeds that do better direct sown in the soil are carrots, beetroot, parsnip, peas, beans, rocket, corn, coriander. Use the same style as for tray sowing above. All of these can be tray sown with care, apart from carrots and parsnips. 
Seeds that do better with an overnight soak to soften their tough as outer shell are beetroot, chard, silverbeet, spinach, pea, sweet pea, bean, corn, coriander. Soak the night before sowing.