There is nothing quite like real dirt. Every time I’d start my sprouts I was rewarded with that fresh wet soil smell. The smell gives me nostalgia of spring and all the fun garden starting activities I need to get done.
Back when I started buying organic seed starting mix I noticed how it can be expensive once you start planting trays and potting things up.
Garden From Scratch-Soil
Some people are intimidated when starting a garden from scratch, but there really isn’t much reason to worry at all.
I spent some time experimenting with raised bed gardening, small space and container gardening, and even tested the no-dig method of gardening. I tried to do potatoes where you layer in newspaper, cardboard, shredded paper, compost, and soil over the top of some potato starts. The idea is you hill it up and don’t have to do any backbreaking digging to get a good harvest of potatoes or whatever it is you are trying to grow. This is well demonstrated by this video by Mr. Charles Dowding.
The backbone of a productive garden is having good soil and in particular good potting soil. You need it for all the plant starts and container plants before moving them outdoors. One item of debate for the potting mix is if you should use peat moss or not.
My understanding is it isn’t a renewable resource, though people are still debating this. What I do know is it compacts down really easily and affects drainage factors and soil aeration. I prefer to keep my soil well-draining, light, and fluffy, and keep it in such a way where there won’t be root rot.
Peat does help keep soil pretty light when in small ratios so I encourage you to experiment if desired.
Potting Soil At Home
I never used exact measurements for my potting mix and went mostly by the look and feel.
For the mix I usually use you need roughly:
- 2 parts finished compost (where to buy)
- 1 part vermiculite (where to buy)
- 1 part coconut coir brick-pre-soaked (where to buy)
- 1-2 cups worm castings (where to buy)
An alternative mix:
2 parts finished compost (where to buy)
2 parts coconut coir (where to buy)
1 part Perlite (where to buy)
Generally, what I’d do is put the coconut coir bricks into a large bucket of water to allow them to soak and expand. It usually works better to gradually add the water until you reach the ideal saturation point. It reduces the pain of getting the brick to water ratio correct.
Once the coir was expanded, I’d mix in the other ingredients according to rough estimates with either a one-gallon or 5-gallon bucket to measure out a “part”. I had a large mixing tub I used specifically for soil mixing though throwing it into a wheelbarrow works too.
Compost is a great resource to have for your garden. I have access to an abnormal amount of food scraps and cardboard as I have a connection that gives me all of their organic restaurant waste so instead of being tossed it goes to my compost. Compost is packed full of nutrients that help consistently feed seedlings.
You can use homemade compost though you want to make sure your compost is considered “finished”. Finished compost should look and smell like rich dark dirt with no more decomposing blobs of organic matter. Any unfinished bits need to stay in the compost until they reach a good decomposition point.
Some people opt to buy their compost to get a faster start on things. You can get your compost from any garden store or get larger amounts delivered by the truckload from specialty stores.
Many seed starting mixes have an addition of peat moss. Though there has been some controversy brewing about use of peat moss about its sustainability factors as well as environmental impacts so in my own gardening adventures I’ve opted for coconut coir as it is renewable. Coir is a material that comes from coconuts husks and holds plenty of water.
I usually buy them as bricks and when I want to use them I soak them in water.
Perlite is another optional soil additive that helps keep starting mix lightweight and more porous. Some people like to add perlite to increase drainage and improve aeration. These factors help improve root health.
I’m personally stopped adding it to my mixes though it is something you can add to yours if desired.
What is Vermiculite?
Vermiculite is also a soil additive but its purpose is to help hold water. It sponges up extra water to keep it held in the seed starting mix. Some people prefer perlite so they have improved drainage.
How to Start Seeds
Before you plant you want to make your soil mix moist. You don’t want your soil flooded. You want the soil wet enough where you can form the mixture into a clump that is also easy to crumble. You don’t want it dripping wet.
Fill your planting containers or seedling trays. It helps to drop the trays and tap on a table to make the mix settle in and then you can fill off the tops with the desired amount of potting mix for the leftover space. You can use some form of preferred plant dibber. You can also use a pencil, toothpick, or anything that works to poke a small hole for the seeds.
Once planted you want to cover the hole with a small bit of mix and then cover the seedling container with a clear dome or a plastic to help keep moisture in.
Right conditions for germination
The trays should be kept in a warm location. You may choose to keep them on a heating mat or on top of the fridge. I have also heard of people using waste heat from the top of their computers (though they water and do plant tending AWAY from computer and remove bottom excess water).
The goal of the heating mat is to keep the soil temperature in the optimum range to get germination to occur. When I lived in zone 7 I never really had to worry about such things. Now living in zone 4b I have heaters going in my plant starting space to help maintain air temps from dipping at night.
Not too long from now I will invest in some heating mats and a really good thermostat to keep soil temperatures steady.
Can’t I just use garden soil to start my seedlings?
Technically, you can use garden soil. I have done it before and have used it after a period of sterilizing the soil. Without sterilizing you risk a lot of nasty things or pests coming in with the dirt. For healthy seedling growth the soilless mix is useful as it is lighter and fluffy. The root development is superior and moisture levels will remain optimal. There is less risk of the seedlings suffering from damping off.
If you’re starting out and need more pointers, I recommend this post as it covers more on seedlings.