Like all races, your road to victory in the garden is about going the distance. However, just like professional athletes, experienced croppers also know that the best finishes come from a strong start. If you get hung-up coming out of the gate, you might finish the race, but it there is little or no chance of it being the best performance possible.

So, let’s break it down into those important first steps. By better understanding each of these steps and, most importantly, how one lends more power to the next in the succession, you will be well-trained this season and stand an excellent chance of making this your best victory garden harvest ever (be it outdoors, in a greenhouse or even under grow lights).

It’s worth noting that there are selections of commercially propagated plants available at the grocery store, your local garden center or maybe even your local hydroponics shop to start your garden. These can be convenient and easy, especially if you aren’t growing for a living. Be warned, though; while you can take home some great starts, you can also take home problems (for example, insects and diseases).

If you can’t talk to who grew your transplants, there can also be uncertainty as to whether or not they were sprayed with chemicals that could harm you or lessen the yield potential from your crop. This makes an even stronger case for growing your own, especially if you make your living from your crops and if you have a short season (meaning you can only bank on getting one crop planted and harvested). In other words, there’s a lot riding on the quality of your starts.

Prepare for success

Fact is, the majority of the work that needs to be done when starting new plants typically has more to do with setting up to plant rather than the act of planting itself. Farmers know the importance of creating a proper seed bed: firm, but not hard, and of finer texture that still drains freely.

If you are using a medium to start cuttings or seeds, that description still fits. Commercial peat or coco-based soilless mixes work great (especially if starting from seeds) and can be used to fill cell trays that fit into a standard 10- by 20-in. propagation dome/tray set-up.

There are specially made plugs available too, with rockwool being just one of the choices. Different mediums will have different pretreatment requirements in order to stabilize the pH or provide/remove nutrients. Some mixes and plugs are ready to use right out of the package. Also, make sure your medium is sterile or else rots and other problems could occur easily in the warm, moist environment created.

Inoculating your seeds and cuttings and encouraging them to be extra healthy is easy with additions of B vitamins and beneficial soil fungus (for example, mycorrhizae and trichoderma).Bacillusstrains of bacteria also promote bigger and healthier root systems that resist the bad guys, which can occur in the soil.

To get the best bang for your buck, you can soak your seeds for a short period in good-quality water mixed with ¼- to 1/8-strength beneficial inoculants and B vitamins. Once your seeds are planted and have emerged, you water with this solution until they need a regular fertilizer program, which could also include some of the beneficials you’re already using.

It’s also a good idea to start with new trays and domes every time you propagate (be sure to recycle them after you’re done). For the cost, relative to how many healthy transplants you can start in a single tray, it is worth the peace of mind.

However, if you prefer, mild bleach solutions and lots of rinsing can be used to sterilize and reuse plastic materials. Ninety-nine percent pure isopropyl alcohol is also effective; just use in a well-ventilated area away from sparks or flames. Nonetheless, note that plastics can get porous; so, overtime, you could be leaving behind harmful pathogens that can quickly infect the next batch of new plants.

Mastering balance

Learning what the correct moisture content is for your propagation medium can take a little practice; in fact, it can years to perfect. Newbies tend to over soak it (A.K.A killing with love), while veterans might get lazy and give a light mist once in a while to even out moisture to the different cells in the tray. However, having the right balance of oxygen-to-water around stems to root or germinating seeds is critical to having a fast and healthy trouble-free start.

With peat and coir mixes, you can learn to watch the color of the medium. As it goes from dark to light, it is losing moisture. Of course, lifting the dome and touching with a clean finger is perfectly acceptable way to test for moisture.

While we’re on the topic of water, using RO filtered water that has been remineralized with nutrients, vitamins, humates, etc. helps ensure that the water is free of harmful contaminants (including disease-causing organisms) while removing chlorine, which would hurt the beneficial life you introduced into your propagating medium.

Knowing when to push and when to breathe

Some seeds need light to germinate, although most will pop up in dark conditions when provided with the right temperature range and moisture. However, once a tiny seedling emerges, it will need light. It’s important to get this right—with cuttings, lighting is a critical factor.

The right photoperiod (duration of light to dark) and the right intensity can make all of the difference between developing a strong healthy root system in a short time frame or having the cuttings lag during rooting, making them very weak and pale by the time they are ready to plant.

When plants absorb light wavelengths, they combine this light energy with the chemical energy from air and water (CO2 for leaves, O2 for roots) and nutrients to form glucose (C6H12O6). Then, when it’s dark, they grow by burning the sugars they made during the light cycle.

However, temperature is king. In fact, deciding the intensity of artificial light you give your seedlings and transplants will often have more to do with temperature, as they are sealed up tight underneath a humidity dome.

This is because seedlings or cuttings can get dehydrated in environments that are too warm since they can’t keep up with the water demand on a non-existent or newly developing root system. As a rule of thumb, light-loving plants like fluorescent lighting kept at a distance of 6 to 12 in. and HID lighting at least a couple feet away from their tops.

For cuttings, this author finds between 800 and 1,200 lumens of T5 lighting provides the best results. Two 4-ft. long tubes roots two 1,020 trays nicely. Seedlings can start with similar lighting conditions.

Maintaining steady temperature of about 80°F in the humidity dome typically gives the best balance between fast development and less risk of problems. Usually maintaining a light cycle of 18 hours on proves optimal for most varieties, however, if it gets colder with the lights out, the lights can be left on 24/7. If it gets too warm under the covered dome, you’ll need to move the light source further away. Keep in mind though that venting warm air away with powerful vent fans is not advisable, even with a snug fitting dome.

When the time is right

Once about 75% of the seedlings have emerged or cuttings are showing roots, it’s time for the young crop to gradually get acquainted with the outside world. If left under the dome for longer, they will stretch and grow soft and weak, thus wasting your earlier efforts to promote optimal health. Start by taking the dome off for an hour or two and then recover by letting it sit covered for a few more hours. Then uncover for longer. If no signs of wilting appear, your plants are ready to stand uncovered.

At this point, if going outdoors right away, you might want to harden your plants off by putting them outside in cooler conditions and then bringing them back in, repeating the process until they get acclimated to outdoor weather. Watch out for strong breezes or intense light, as tender young transplants can get fried quickly. Insects and animals would love to eat your seedlings, so take care here too. Keep in mind that bigger plants stand a better chance outdoors.

If you are going to keep growing indoors, which is advisable, you will want to do what savvy indoor growers do. That’s to pre-veg your plants before introducing them to more intensive growing conditions. This way the young plants experience no hiccups early on and end up producing maximized yields.

Pre-growth tactics

Instead of putting plants straight outside or even indoors into more intensive full-on vegetative growing conditions, it pays to provide them with a healthy adolescence before they become young adults. This way they will be revving to go for the big race ahead, and will have bulked up enough on the top and bottom to resist troubles and grow big.

One of the best and easiest methods to accomplish this is by planting into small pots (or beer cups with drain holes—beer cups are great because they are deeper than wide so you can still fit lots of plants under one light fixture). At this point, keep fluorescent lights just off the tops of the plants (if using metal halide lighting, about 1,600 to 2,000 lumens is ideal).

Also, provide a gentle breeze with a small fan. At this point, bioactivity is good, so step it up. Go light on nutes and heavier on things like vitamins, bacteria, fungi, humates, fulvates and amino acids. This will encourage strong healthy root development without making your plants stretch. Also, let them dry out a little between waterings (but don’t let them wilt) now that the plants have some roots to stand on.

You will have hardier, studier plants that are better able to withstand stresses. However, while your plants are growing up and able to resist a bit more, do keep a watchful eye so that you don’t accidentally stress or dry out your valuable starts.

After 10-14 days in this pre-veg stage, your plants should be very well-established and ready to transplant into larger containers or well-prepared planting holes. However, if the leaves don’t look vibrant or healthy, or you see signs of troubles from insect or diseases on them, hold off on planting. Plants are much easier to treat and handle while they are smaller, so it’s much easier to nip the problem in the bud (so to speak) at this stage. In other words, don’t ignore a problem if you do see one! They rarely go away on their own.

Seedling starting tips

  • Be careful with heat mats; they can get too warm and cause rots and other problems
  • Lift the dome off for a few minutes every day and wipe the condensation off with a clean paper towel
  • Humates and fulvates are completely natural ingredients and promote healthier and bigger root systems
  • Foliar spray only if you have to; standing moisture on foliage is a gateway for pathogens and is best avoided if possible
  • Set it up right and then leave it alone; your young plants want a stable and regular environment, so do it right the first time

Super starts are the key to a successful crop; so, follow the advice above and you’ll be well on your way to a growing victory!