How To Proof Seeds, Start Seeds, and Harden Seedlings: The Witch’s Garden

In order to grow a garden from seeds, we have to make sure our seeds can survive outdoors. The easiest way to do this is to wait until all danger of frost has passed, then sow your seeds in the soil outside. Yet some of us live in places with limited growing seasons.

HW headquarters is located in a region with a 90-day growing season. We go from freeze to 100 degrees in 90 days or less. In order to make the most of the early spring plants including peas, spinach, kale, and cabbage, we start these seeds indoors about a month before the last frost date. NOAA has a great map of the US to find your last frost/freeze date.

We have some peas proofing and starting to sprout now. These babies will be our first plant-and-harvest vegetables of the year. As organic gardeners, we will share organic methods in this and all other Witch’s Garden posts.

In order to save valuable resources (soil, compost, manure, and time), we do our best to avoid planting and nourishing dead seeds. In order to see which seeds are viable, we prove them.

Proving is a five-step process. The time it takes to prove varies depending on the seeds you are proving. Germination takes a specific number of days per plant species, we add three more days to that number and proof for that long. Although the +3 is not necessary, we don’t want to toss any late-bloomers into the compost. Rescuing seedlings from fresh compost is not any fun.

How to Proof Seeds

  1. Soak seeds in warm water for an hour.
  2. Set seeds on a paper towel. Make sure the seeds are not touching each other.
  3. Spray lavishly with water.
  4. Cover with plastic. You can reuse plastic bags before recycling them.
  5. Spay with water and check for sprouts twice daily.

Part of the proofing process is planting the sprouted seeds. As seeds start to sprout you can move them to a seed pot. We use biodegradable egg cartons (aka soil cups) to start seeds.

How to Start Seeds

  1. Make your planting mix. We use a 1:1:1 ratio of mature compost, manure, and soil. You can buy organic gardening soil almost anywhere they sell plants.
  2. Saturate your planting mix, squeeze out extra moisture and use that like compost tea on any other plant.
  3. Fill each egg carton cup with the damp mix.
  4. Make a depression in each soil cup to the recommended depth for your plant species. For peas, we go just deeper than the last knuckle on our pinky fingers.
  5. Move any sprouting seeds to the soil cups and cover with your mix.
  6. Cover with plastic.
  7. Move to a sunny window, preferably on the East side of your house. Be careful not to make a sauna by wrapping the plastic tightly. Cover loosely with plastic to prevent water loss.
  8. As needed, up to 3 times a week in arid climates, water the seedlings. Use a spray bottle. Keep them lightly covered.

Now fast forward two weeks. Your first seedlings are reaching out of their little carton cubbies. Remove and recycle the plastic. Watch water levels. Keep them barely damp, not soggy and not dry. Move them to a West facing window if you can.

Fast Forward one more week.

How to Harden Seedlings

Your first seedlings are three weeks old. It is about a week before the last frost date. If you can, open the window and leave it open unless there is a danger of frost. If that happens, by all means, close the window! Alternately, place the seedlings on a covered porch and bring them in if there is a danger of frost.

Fast forward one more week and you have made it past the freeze date! Now comes the hardest part of hardening, for you and the plants.

  1. At night, before you go to bed, take your month old seedlings outside and set them in the garden where you intend to plant them. You may lose some to predation.
  2. Check on the seedlings over the next day. They will not like the full strength of the sun. The soil may dry out faster. The strong will survive.
  3. The following day, use a sharp pair of scissors or gardening shears to separate the soil cups.
  4. Use a large spoon or a spade to dig a hole large enough to place the entire cup in it.
  5. Place one seedling per hole. Bury the soil cup, root structure, and white part of the stem to help strengthen your seedling.
  6. Water gently and lavishly as needed.
  7. Mark your calendar so you know when to harvest.

I would say, “that’s it!” but this is a lot of steps and then you have to weed and water once your seeds are in the garden. Just go slow, take your time, and enjoy the process. Bringing forth new life requires a little work, but you can do it.


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