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  • Nancy Redfeather

Tips for Starting Garden Seeds Year-Round in Hawai’i

Spring is the perfect time to start garden seeds for an abundant summer harvest. So, once again, I reached out to our experienced seed growers in the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network and asked them to share some of their seed starting expert tips with you.  As you will see, there is not one way to do this, and like everything else in life, experience and observation of what works and what doesn’t work in your unique growing environment is very important. 

 

Starting your garden seed to ensure later success is crucial. It's kind of like having a family and making sure that when your children are very little they receive all the benefits they need to grow into healthy mature people! 

 

There is the old question; shall I direct seed right into my garden bed OR shall I start seed in pots, grow them up a little, and then transplant them into my garden?  What is the best environment for starting seeds?  What is the best potting medium to use? 

starting flower seeds in trays

The answers to these and many other seed starting questions are found below in this blog, and there are also 4 other blogs on the HSGN website that will go into more detail for you.  Most of these are about a 5 minute read.

 

1.      “Planting for the Season” written in May 2022 by Michelle Carrillo, a very experienced market gardener and the Director of the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network. This article is full of sage advice on seed starting and transplanting.  You can find that article here

 

2.     If you’re thinking of planting corn, beans, or pumpkins, check out “It’s Time to Grow Corn:  Tips on Growing Popcorn, Sweetcorn, and Flour Corn in Hawai’i” you can read it here.   And take a moment to read through the invaluable, “Three Sisters in the Hawaiian Gardenhere.

 

3.     Another Blog that talks directly about seed starting and seed storage is: “Seed Magic:  Starting Seeds-Storing Seeds” read it here.  This blog outlines which seeds to start directly in the soil and which seeds to start in pots and transplant.  Also, it goes over basic good seed storage protocols to keep your precious seed viable for many years. 

 

That’s definitely enough for now, let’s see what the Seed Growers are thinking about when starting garden seeds in Hawai’i. 


Glenn and Jane Teves, Puakala Farm. Ho’olehua, Moloka’i


We sow small seeds in 2 1/2” plastomer cell trays which we've used for over 25 years, this includes lettuce, solanaceous crops, brassicas, and most tiny seed. Depending on the season, cucurbit seeds are planted directly in the ground, but in winter months we sow in cells.


Pro Tip: the potting mix should be loose in the tray and not forced in to ensure good drainage. 


During winter months, we try to sow a little shallower, either by making little holes or sprinkling fine potting mix over the seeds. As they emerge, we might push them in if roots are sticking out of the media and this happens with onion and sometimes brassicas. In spring, it can be helpful to plant seeds a little deeper in their hole.

starting lettuce seed in trays

Typically we start lettuce seed in flats and create little furrows with a ruler and then transplant to cells or directly in the ground, depending on the variety and its individual needs. And if we have only a few seeds of a stellar variety and want to nurture them more closely (and especially if growing for seed) we will seed into flats and transplant to cells. 


For papaya seed, we usually start in cells then transplant to 3-4” square pots. Papaya can take a while to germinate - sometimes over 3 weeks. Soaking seeds overnight helps speed up the process. Watering needs to be delicate so you don’t blow the seeds out of the cells, which trust us can happen! Initial wetting is important because it takes a while for peat to absorb water. Wetting the media prior to filling cells works best.


All large garden seeds and root crops should go directly in the ground. Direct seeding in the rainy season can be a challenge because weeds can overrun the field. Solarizing can help in a garden setting but is more challenging in long rows. With the high price of potting mix, we are experimenting with coir, peat, biochar, and perlite mixes.

 

Proper seed storage starts with viable seed stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Take out only what you need to sow and return the rest as soon as possible. 

 

Below is a photo of the second half of our babies getting ready for the April planting. We will also sow seeds directly into the soil that will be mixed with these transplants. 

Use different sized containers to start small and large seeded varieties

 Lyn Howe – Paonia, Colorado (and formerly of Lower Puna)

 

Geoff and I lived and grew gardens for many years on Beach Road in Puna, then moved to Colorado where we continue to grow gardens from late spring through the fall.   Seed starting is very different here and we wanted to share our systems with you as a contrast to what you can do in Hawai’i. 

 

When we're sowing pepper seeds, we first start them on a wet paper towel as if doing a germination test. Then after about a week when they are just showing a small sprout, we carefully transplant them into 2“ pots and have 100% success!

 

For all the brassicas, we plant numerous seeds in one pot and then transplant into separate pots when they reach about 3” or so. We grow them up a bit and then transplant into the garden. 

 

On hard to germinate seeds like native seed, we have been experimenting with placing the seed in the pot on a dab of fresh aloe as a rooting hormone. We will see if this gives us better success!

starting seed indoors

 

At left you can see a photo from one of our indoor seed starting systems.


Once the plants are big enough and our nights are out of single digits, they go into cold frames making way for our next planting of starts. We begin in late February and sow seed until May, and then transplant to the garden where we may use frost blankets at night until June.


You are all very lucky to be growing in Hawai’i with the warm climate perfect for seed starting!



Donna Mitts – The Kohala Center’s Na Moku Farm-Honoka’a, Hawai’i Island

Vermicomposting used in seed starting

For seed starting, I usually use Pro Mix for my medium then add about 5% vermicast to the mix.  Because it is vermicast, I sometimes get rogue tomato seeds that pop up but because I never know for sure what they are I usually will cull them out.  


I work with the worms in my worm-box to make the vermicast.  Vermicast has many good properties.  It helps soil absorb and retain water, improves soil structure, enhances soil fertility, and adds organic matter. 


Melissa Malahoff-Kamei – M-K Farm Corp – Kailua, Oahu

 

For root veggies, beans, corn, melons, cucumbers and squash: as much as possible I like to sew seed directly in its final place without transplanting them. For root veggies this seems to reduce deformity and I find plants are more vigorous if they grow in place without transplanting. I sow more seed than I need and cull the least vigorous seedlings. Nothing goes to waste as the pulled seedlings are used as chicken fodder or compost.

 

For brassicas: I’ll sew these in trays, about 2-3 seeds per cell, cull to a single plant per cell, up pot once and then plant out into the final growing place (typically raised beds or in ground). 

 

For lettuce and lettuce mixes , I’ll sprinkle seeds in a flat to use as baby greens - cut and come again style, harvesting the tops only and not the main growth points. This naturally weeds out the least vigorous plants. After the second baby greens cut, I’ll thin out the plants and keep the hardiest specimens to grow larger to full heads of lettuce (or mustard greens if it’s a spicy-greens mix) 

 

For tomatoes, I mostly grow Aunty M’s variety at the moment so I sow in place and they tend to self-seed in the same area season after season. I usually don’t keep on top of harvesting enough so the seeds drop when the birds get them. It’s the same with the poha berry. They self-seed in the same area and I don’t have to purposely plant them anymore. Other nightshades (eggplants or other tomato varieties) I will sow in trays, up-pot, and transplant out when they’re six inches high. 


Evan Ryan – Pono Grown Farm Center – Makawao, Maui


Start with Fresh seed!

Whether you buy or save your own seed, its a good practice to plant it within a month or two. And ideally do your planting the same week for best viability. 

 

Start with moist soil all the way through, a little wetter than a wrung-out sponge. Then seed into that and water lightly daily. You don't want your soil too wet and you also don't want it too dry - having the right balance is critical.

 

We start most of our vegetable plants into small cells. As soon as the cotyledons are open and the plant is still super young we will pot up into a 4” pot to get a nice healthy start. It will go to the field as soon as the first roots start hitting the edge of the pot. 


starting lettuce seed in flats or trays

Nancy Redfeather – Kawanui Farm - Honalo, Hawai’i Island

 

Starting garden seeds is an important act. I use my Biodynamic Stella Natura Calendar to check for an optimal day for starting root, leaf, flower, or fruit seed. I also use the Calendar when I transplant my babies into the garden.

 

When starting garden seeds, I use a mix of organic potting soil and finely screened compost (about 2/3 potting mix and 1/3 fine compost).  I have found that this combination is the best start I can give my seeds.  Then as they grow to transplant size, I don’t have to feed them, and they are learning what it will be like when they are transplanted into the soil. I water the soil with kelp water before planting. Kelp is full of minerals, and helps the baby plants grow healthy roots.

 

I like to start garden seeds in community pots, and rogue out any that look weak or are showing any kind of problem. When they have 2 sets of true leaves I carefully separate them and plant each into 3 or 4 inch pot to grow for a while before planting them in their final bed in one of the gardens. I always make sure that the community pots stay slightly moist, and I always read the advice of the seed grower, if I’m starting something new

 

I have also had good success planting very small community pot seedlings directly into garden soil instead of bringing them up first in a larger pot.  You might try that sometimes if the seedlings look vigorous. 


Today, I have a small shade house with a few benches but that hasn’t always been true. Many years ago I had pallets on cinder blocks under the shade of a tree for the area where I started my garden seeds. You want the light to be bright but not full sun, more a bright shade for best early germination and growth. 

 

The Alan Chadwick concept is to feed the young seedlings a light breakfast, a medium lunch as they mature and a heavier dinner when transplanted out into the field, and try to avoid starting or transplanting any seeds or plants on the day of an Eclipse. Always use seed that is fresh or has been carefully saved in a tight container in your fridge. 

 

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment, observe results, and remember to make notes in your Garden Log

starting garden seeds in pots

We hope all these ideas have given you inspiration to try a few new things when starting seeds for your garden this year.

 

Remember season is very important.  The spring season right now has a special grow energy that you won’t find at other times during the year so it’s a good time to get your seeds started!  Also, there is a special energy around the time of the full and new moons, as you know the moon cycles and plant cycles are directly connected.  You can learn more about that by consulting the writings of many different philosophies.  The Hawaiian Moon and Planting Calendar, The Biodynamic Calendar, and the Farmers Almanac, and don’t forget the Planting for Season Blog mentioned in the first part of this Blog. 


Happy Spring Planting,


Nancy Redfeather

Hawai’i Seed Growers Network

hands harvesting cabbage

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