Starting Seeds—Potting Up

TEXT by Celine MacKay | PHOTOGRAPHS by Pure Green Magazine


Shown above: Cuccumbers! You can see the two cotyledons and the true leaf clearly here.

IT'S NOW BEEN ABOUT THREE WEEKS SINCE I FIRST PLANTED MY SEEDS and the landscape sure looks different now! I'm happy to share that about 95% of the seeds flourished, which means that most of my cells holds at least 2 plants. Just in case you are wondering, here are a few things that I believe led to greater success:

-I was obsessive about using artificial light to make sure the seedling were getting what they needed. I made extra sure to place it low, nearly touching the leaves, to reduce the amount of "stretching" they were doing to reach the light.

-I didn't overwater... I used only the spray bottle to water and used it once per day.

-Once the seedlings had sprouted and I could see new growth, I fertilized using a natural mix that I diluted in water. Kelp fertilizer is an excellent choice. 


Shown above: Kale! These guys are really going wild. I have special plans for these guys, stay posted. 

Soon, it became obvious that the tender new days where I felt things could go either way were ending. The little guys were sprouting taller each day and I began to worry a little less, and soon it became evident that they had outgrown their tiny home in the seedling tray. It was time to "pot up" as gardeners would say to give those roots room to spread.


Shown above: Tomatoes! These guys are super healthy and plentiful! 

How do you tell if the plants are ready to move? Two, easy ways. 

1. When a seed sprouts, the first leaves that appear are actually part of the plant's embryonic state. These two, symmetrical leaves are called cotyledons, and look fairly similar from plant to plant. As the plant matures further, you'll start to see the formation of "true leaves", which will look more like the plant you expected to see. These true leaves allow for the plant to undergo photosynthesis, which is how the plant turns energy from the sun into food. When the seedling has sprouted it's first set of true leaves, and they are established and apparent, generally it's safe to transplant. 

2. If you lift up your seed tray, check the underside for roots sprouting through the drainage holes. When you start to see them poking out, the seedlings are definitely ready for a bigger home. 


WHAT YOU'LL NEED (available at most hardware stores):

  • 2 or 3" pots with drainage hole*
  • organic potting mix (like this one)
  • large spoon or trowel
  • newspaper or plastic (if doing indoors)
  • watering can
  • wooden popsicle sticks & permanent marker
  • butter knife
  • tray

*A note about your pot: Calculate how many pots you'll need by counting the seedlings you plan to keep (make sure to check if there is more than one plant per cell). When searching for pots, I was first looking for sturdy plastic pots that I could reuse. But the store had limited options, so instead I chose pots that were made of peat (looks like thick brown kraft paper) that would biodegrade. The idea is that you can plant the pot right in the soil and it will break down, assimilating with the soil and allowing the roots to delve deeper into the ground—more on this later. 



1. Fill your pots mostly full with dry soil. 

2. Using your finger or butter knife, make a hole in the center for the plant.

3. You need to get your seedling out of the starter tray causing as little damage as possible. The trick to doing this is squeeze the base of cell gently with your fingers until you can see the plant popping up out the cell a little bit. Further loosen it by sliding your butter knife along the outside of the cell. Super gently grasp the base of the stem and ease the plant out of the cell. 

4. You'll probably notice that most of the dirt falls away, which is fine as long as you are taking as much care to keep the roots intact, but some damage is innevitable. If you had two viable plants in the cell, you'll need to split them up. Gently massage the root ball with your fingers, pulling them ever so gently until they part, and then plant them in individual pots. The one exception is possibly cuccumber. They don't like to be disturbed, so I experimented with seperating some and leaving others alone, but planting them in a slightly larger pot.


5. Place the roots into the hole you created in the soil of the new pot. Gently fill with soil, pressing lightly close to the stem to keep it upright. 

*Note: most plants will tolerate having the stem partly buried in the soil if your plant has a long leggy stem before the leaves start. This is especially true of tomatoes, and actually a recommended practice.

6. Water the newly planted seedling. The water may compact the dirt a little, so you may find you'll need to top up a few pots with more soil. 

7. Place your pots in a tray that will catch excess water, and place in a sunny, well lit window. 


And that's it! It's somewhat time consuming process, so be prepared. We suggest cueing up our podcast interview with Andrea Bemis, a farmer from Oregon, to get you in the mood and help pass the time!


Starting Seeds Part 1

Planning Your Garden & Maintaining Seedlings