Give seeds a fighting chance

March 06, 2012 11:58 am
Most of us cannot change our landscaping, and thereby gardening, features on a grand scale. Large trees are where they will stay, buildings can’t be moved, and our soil is either rocky or not. 

So when we look at individual specifics for starting seeds, and how and where we will accomplish this, we need to spend a generous amount of time surveying what our site will offer to get the seeds off to a good start.  Both positive and negative features need to be examined. If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse with heated space or trays, you probably don’t need these reminders.  Most of us, however, need a little extra creativity and determination to get healthy plants growing.  Let’s first look at our site. 

Your little seeds will need light. If your most sheltered site for building or starting them on level soil is on the north side of a building, they probably won’t receive enough solar energy to encourage healthy growth or stay warm enough. This is where you need to manipulate what you have to your best advantage. For seed starting purposes, think of your landscape, and that your seeds will need a good six hours of light per day for healthy growth. But if your soil is too cold, they probably won’t even sprout. Many seeds, if started in soil that is cold, will simply rot in the ground, or sit there dormant waiting for warmer temperatures. For small scale seed starting, especially for transplants, you’ll need to devise a way to keep the bottom of the pots warm. 

Many commercial items are sold that are designed to heat the soil. Heating mats, while perhaps the most effective, are also costly.  An alternate method I have used that is highly successful is the soil cables. Use a tray that is about four inches high, fill with two inches of dirt, lay your soil cable on top of this while trying to leave no more than four inches between rows of cable, and then cover with an additional inch of soil. Trays may be place directly on top of this and will receive even heat along the entire tray bottom. Although soil cables are advertised as water resistant, it’s still a good idea to try and not get them wet.  The use of waterproof trays to have your seedling mixes and seeds in should be sufficient.

For seeds that you will directly sow outside but you are concerned about soil warmth, try using raised beds. Don’t just mound the soil up; build a bed that will have a raised lip all around it. Where does the sun come up in relation to your garden? If you raised bed is rectangular, instead of just square, position the bed so that the long aspect of it runs north and south, if at all possible. This exposes the greatest amount of soil to the early morning sun and will heat up tremendously faster than gardening areas that are flat.  Having a lip around the raised bed also allows you to keep the water just where you want it.  Applications of fertilizer and mulch are also not wasted with a system in place that keeps these just on your raised beds and not simply broadcast in walkways. 

For all areas of eastern Oregon, we most commonly have cold soil to contend with when trying to get a jump on the growing season.  So in addition to the above recommendations, there is also readily available clear plastic. Making portable hot caps or cold frames out of plastic is an excellent way to heat the soil. For more information and a free cold frame plan, visit the Oregon State University extension website at and type “cold frames” in the search engine. A wealth of information is included in the selections that pop up.

Until next time, enjoy planning your garden!  The next Garden Guide will include a review of one of our local nurseries.


Jennie can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it