Gardening Tips Week 7: Caring for Seedlings

Straw protecting bulbs. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Straw protecting bulbs. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Author’s Note: This week, we are re-running the second in a series of three columns from 2017. They are perfect for this time of year, and will help you get ready for spring while Michelle deals with a few things that have her tied up right now. She did want to add a quick note about the weather we have been having recently, as it is quite different from last year. The repeated freezing and thawing we are experiencing of late can have a destructive impact on the garden. This can especially be the case for bulbs of all types. If you are out checking the garden, you may notice your precious bulbs popping out of the soil because it has been heaving from the sudden changes in temperature. You may feel the urge to poke them back down. Don’t do it. You can damage the bulb. Instead, add an extra thick layer of mulch. You can use leaves if you have a pile around, but straw will do too. You might have an easier time finding straw than leaves because it is kept on hand at garden stores for the horses. Take the time to do this now. Your bulbs will thank you.


What to do this week

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that it is very important for recently planted seeds to be warm until they germinate. Once germinated, they are a little more forgiving, and can be moved to a cooler windowsill so you can use your warmest spot for the next planting. When your seedlings are established, they need light more than warmth, within reason.

It is also important that seeds have fairly high humidity to germinate. I will often cover the tray with a plastic bag while they are just getting started. As soon as you see the plant emerging from the soil, take off that plastic.

You may have seedlings that look like they are doing great, but if there is not enough air circulation, and it is too moist, they could all of a sudden just fall over. This is the dreaded damping off, a fungal disease that will kill seedlings faster than anything else. It is an ever-present danger in overly humid and warm conditions with little circulation. You were thinking you were giving your seedlings ideal conditions but too much moisture and not enough air circulation is ideal for fungal disease. So, as soon as your seedlings poke through the soil take that plastic bag off and let the air flow. From this point, you will be managing moisture and light.

Water your seedlings from the bottom, so the roots reach down. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. The roots need air too, but don’t let the soil dry out.

Seedlings (Photo by D Sharon Pruitt, Utah, USA [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Seedlings (Photo by D Sharon Pruitt, Utah, USA [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The other thing your seedlings need is light. They will insist on growing toward the light. Don’t let your seedlings stretch toward the sun. If you are using a windowsill, turn the tray around every few days. if you have grow lights, the bulbs should be VERY close to the seedlings, no more than a few inches away. This is much closer than you might imagine, so close that you will have to watch the seedling growth and gradually move the lights up. If you are using windowsills, you can cover cardboard with foil and put it at the back to reflect the sun and give the seedlings light from both sides.

Generally, you should not have to fertilize seedlings. Onions, the entire Allium family for that matter, are a noted exception. They are planted very early and stay in their soil blocks for a long time, so liquid fish fertilizer might be a good idea later in the game. Otherwise, don’t use fertilizer as a substitute for a good soil block mix. The food should be in the soil. That is the best way for plants to get it. If you suspect that your soil mix is not the best, you can use fish fertilizer, but it is not what you should be relying on. It might be better to review the tips on soil mixes from two weeks ago before you commit your veggie futures to a weak start.

Your plants will tell you if they are not happy. Phosphorus deficiency causes purple veins in the leaves and nitrogen deficiency causes yellowing leaves but you don’t usually see this in the seedling stage. Your crimes will be discovered down the line, so get the soil mix right and you will be glad you did.

Next week, I will cover extreme seed starting. These are techniques like stratifying and scarification, clever ways to help along hard-to-germinate seeds.




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.





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