Vermiculite Seed Starting 101..

Long story short: I am becoming convinced you get an advantage by starting seeds inside when the weather is cool. I believe you can skip the high maintanence “hardening off” phase where you take your pots out every day and bring them in every night for awhile…attempting to get them used to being outside. So, I skipped that.

However, there is no doubt you get a faster sprout in warmer soil temps, and in most cases a better germination percentage. So, you control your environment by starting your seeds inside and possibly on a seed heating mat, too. Once they sprout, they go right into the garden. But, how do you do that when the fragile little seedlings are in that dirt? How do you do that without breaking that delicate taproot?

The answer is to start the seeds in a tray of vermiculite. Vermiculite is a mineral, much like mica, that has a tremendous absorption and water retention quality. It’s a bit pricey, but with my method, you will be reusing it over and over again as it has no organic properties whatsoever. Just dry it out and dump it back into your tub. A 3 cu ft bag may last me forever.

I bought a couple of shallow brownie pans from the dollar store. And, I poked several holes in the bottom to allow drainage. Then, I placed a paper towel in the bottom of the pan to keep things from washing through the holes. I added the vermiculite and soaked it with water. I poured off the excess and grabbed my seeds. I sprinkled some seeds on top of the damp vermiculite and covered them with a thin layer of dry vermiculite. The results..

Damp vermiculite with new seedlings sprouting.

You can see the results about 4 days later with my lettuce sprouting. I wait an additional day or two for the sprouts to fully open their first two “baby ears.” Now, they are ready for the garden. I gently use a sharp object, like a pencil, to loosen the soil. I can then just pull the sprouts out by the ears without breaking any roots. After I remove the seedling, I poke a hole in the garden soil and just put the sprout in there like I was planting a seed, but I obviously leave the ears sticking out above the soil.

New seedlings in the garden.

Most of my garden has been started this way this year. Here is the inside of my hoops. I can control the temperature better and capitalize on the even warmer temperatures of my house to get the seeds to sprout faster than they would in the cooler soil of the garden. My theory is that the seedlings know nothing of cold snaps and can handle them just like they would had they started outside originally. However, if I leave them inside under growlights for a couple weeks, I likely have to go through the additional process of hardening them off, too.

Inside the hoops.  In the front squares you can see lettuce started a week before the previous pictures.

I hope this helps paint a better picture.

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4 Responses to Vermiculite Seed Starting 101..

  1. Joy says:

    BackyardBirdGardner,
    I’m excited to find your site, as I’m also in St. Louis! I’m trying SFG for the first time this year. I’m intrigued by your seed starting method. Have you done it before this year? I started seeds last year and was doing great with them until I got to the high maintenance hardening off phase…so I would love to find a way to circumvent that. I’m interested in how it goes!
    Joy

    • Thanks for the interest. I haven’t started seeds indoors before. But, mine this year were already getting “leggy.” I read in The All New Square Foot Gardening Method by Mel Bartholomew that you can start in vermiculite cups and pull them when their ears open. The vermiculite is so loose that the sprouts simply pop out. I think he puts them in pots instead of direct into the garden. I decided to skip that step and see what happens as an experiment. I can tell you that after a week of temps in the lower 30’s at night (mid to upper 30’s in the hoophouse), my veggies are still fine. My spinach and carrots are growing noticeably….and those aren’t even supposed to be transplantable veggies. I’ll keep you posted. Glad you found me.

  2. Joy says:

    How is it going with the HH over the last couple of days?? I thought about you and your plants when it started snowing!

    • Been hard to get to the blog lately. My landscaping and lawn cutting season is kicking in with ferosity, which is a good thing. That and home duties have me bogged down a bit. But, I’m due for a post soon.

      Everything made it through the snow and freeze just fine. In fact, I had my first salad from the garden last night. I couldn’t help myself. But, doing that likely made sure I don’t get another salad for a few more weeks.

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