If you’re relatively new to gardening, you may have always purchased young, established plants at the nursery to get your flower or vegetable plot going. As you become more adept at gardening, however, you may want to do what the pros do and start your plants from seed.
In much of the United States, avid gardeners start their seeds indoors in the winter, rather than waiting until the late spring to sow them in place outdoors. In all but the warmest climates, the growing season is too short, and by the time the plants reach maturity, the frost and late autumn weather would make harvesting anything an impossibility.
Growing your own garden from seed gives you a much greater selection of plants to choose from, and you can grow everything organically if you want. You’ll learn a lot more about gardening that way as well, and in the end you’ll find it’s much more gratifying. Read on to learn 20 tips for starting your own seeds, so you can enjoy this aspect of your garden too.
1. Choose the Right Seeds
While starting your own seeds from scratch certainly gives you a much wider choice of plants than buying starter plants at the garden center, don’t get too carried away by those glossy catalogs and colorful packets.
Be realistic about the size of your plot and the number of seedlings you have room to nurture in your home. Also, give some thought to the level of care each plant will require–seeds may be easy to start, but the adult plants could be time consuming or fussy.
Choose the right seeds for your planting location:
- climate (days of sun, amount of rainfall, proximity to the ocean, etc.)
- amount of sun/shade in the yard
- soil (porousness, mineral content, etc.)
- other plantings in the yard (black walnut trees, for example, make growing some plants difficult)
2. Create a Calendar
When you have an good idea what you want to grow, create a calendar for harvesting your plants or seeing them bloom, and work backwards from there. Allow time for the plants to come to fruition, growth from seedling to adult plant and germination to transplant.
If the entire process of growing takes four months, for example, and you want blossoms for an occasion in August, you need to start your seeds around the end of March or beginning of April.
Don’t have all your plants ripen at once. Try to plan your garden so you have something to pick or appreciate in early, mid and late summer, as well as autumn. Even if you live in a warm climate, growing seasons need to be taken into account.
3. Schedule Multiple Plantings
You may also want to have multiple plantings of the same crop, so you can enjoy it all summer long. Vegetables like lettuce can get “leggy” when left in the garden too long, so think about starting a second batch of seeds a month later for a second planting.
4. Select Containers
You’ll need as many small containers as seedlings you want to eventually transplant. You can use last year’s flats from the nursery, if you happened to save them, or old yogurt containers. Ideally, you want a container that’s about 2-3 inches deep.
To prevent plant disease, be sure to rinse the containers in a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach.
You can also buy seedling containers of pressed coir or peat that break down on their own in the soil once they’re planted. You can even make your own from cardboard egg containers, if the seeds are being planted at a shallow depth. You may need to moisten the bottom of the egg cartons so they break down rapidly once planted.
Any container you use needs to have a hole poked in the bottom to provide adequate drainage. Place your containers on a waterproof tray; you can purchase them at the nursery or use the lid of a large plastic storage bin.
5. Use the Best Planting Medium
You can purchase pre-mixed seed starter soil, or you can make your own. This is a job that any kids in the household will love to do. In a large garden pail mix equal parts peat, pearlite and vermiculite. You can add 1/4 teaspoon of lime to each gallon of soil mix to balance the acidity.
If you purchased the coir or compressed peat pellets, you won’t need potting mix, as these expand when wet.
The idea is to give your seedlings the perfect environment, so they don’t dry out or get too moist. The soil needs to be loose enough to allow the germinating seed to push through to the air above.
6. Plant Your Seeds
To plant your seeds, all you have to do is place them at the suggested depth in your planting medium. Make sure not to make the soil too compact when you put them in. You can use a disposable chopstick with the depth marked on it to create the right size hole in each container.
Don’t forget to label your containers! You can write directly on them or make all one flat the same thing with a marker at one end.
7. Prevent Disease in Your Trays
Some people like to use a little pinch of sphagnum moss on the top of each container to prevent rot. If your seeds need light to germinate, you can sprinkle the moss first, then add the seeds.
8. Ensure Warmth
To get the tiny plants to emerge from the seeds (germination), you need to provide warmth. While you can buy special heating mats for this at a garden center, you can also improvise a few different ways at home.
Using the top of an appliance, like a dryer or refrigerator, works, as does placing them near (but not on) a heater. You want to create your own greenhouse-like environment by adding a layer of plastic film or a sheet of glass over the top, once ensuring the soil is moist (see below).
Your potting medium should be moist when you plant your seeds. If you’re worried about over-saturating your containers, you can give each one a mist with a spray bottle before covering them.
Once your seeds sprout and you see little bits of green (the seed package or nursery can tell you how long this will take), you can remove the covering and begin watering them. New seedlings are quite fragile, so rather than watering them from the top, pour some water in the bottom of the tray holding your containers, and let the plants wick it up from the bottom.
There are self-watering kits that provide a steady amount of water for your containers, provided you keep the main water reservoir filled. These are ideal if you need to be gone for a few days during the early seed-growing process.
10. Remember to Check Plants Daily
You need to remember to check your seeds daily. At first you’ll want to see if they’ve germinated, and then you’ll need to make sure they are being adequately watered. This is another job kids love to take on, and they’ll be amazed at how quickly the seeds turn into little plants.
If you have a hard time remembering to do something every day, set a reminder on your mobile phone or tie it to another daily activity. You can post a note on your coffee maker or pin it to the hook where you hang your dog’s leash.
11. Provide Light
Unless your seeds need light to germinate (which the package will tell you), you can wait to give them light until they have sprouted. Unless you live fairly far south and have a lot of natural sun in your windows, you’ll probably need to invest in some plant lights.
You can purchase special growing lights from a plant nursery, or you can build your own setup with equipment from the home improvement store. T-12 or T-8 fluorescent shop lights positioned about 2-4 inches above the seedlings will provide the light your plants need. You will need to raise the lights as the plants grow, so clip them to something that can move with the height of the plant.
Your young plants will need between 12 and 18 hours of light a day. You can attach your lights to a simple on/off timer to make sure the plants get the light they need.
12. Add Nutrition
If you’re still gathering experience as a gardener, you may not be composting yet, although you’ll probably want to in the future. Your seedling growing mix won’t likely have any compost in it, so you’ll want to feed your new plants once they have their first true set of leaves.
You can ask your garden center for recommendations, or you can make a weak solution of seaweed or fish fertilizer. This can be spritzed on the plants or added to the water they are soaking up from underneath.
13. Separate Overcrowded Seedlings
Sometimes you wind up with multiple seedlings in the same container (those seeds are just so darn tiny!) or they outgrow their containers before it’s time to transplant them outdoors. When that happens, you can carefully prick them apart with a small tool, like a dental pick, and replant them in separate or slightly larger containers.
14. Harden Off Seedlings
When it gets close to the time on the calendar to transplant your seedlings, you need to start hardening them off. This is the gardening equivalent of going from Miami to Anchorage with stops in Dallas, Denver and Seattle first.
Your plants need to get used to being in a slightly cooler, less protected environment. To help them with this, start by putting the trays outdoors for a few hours at a time away from direct sunlight. Gradually increase their time outside and in the sun, until they are acclimated to their planting environment.
15. Transplant Your Seedlings
Once your seedlings are hardened off, they are ready for transplanting into your garden outdoors. Follow the planting instructions for each species, placing each plant at the required depth, which you will have already hollowed out in advance.
Take care not to disturb the root system as you gently pop each seedling out of its container. If you use containers that are meant to degrade into the soil as the seedling grows, you can simply place the entire unit in the ground. Egg cartons may need to be carefully cut or torn into separate units.
Gently tamp the ground slightly around each new plant to hold it in place. If the soil is dry, give each plant a bit of water to help the roots get established immediately.
16. Offer Support
If your seedlings are tall enough that they need a little support, you can offer this in the way of stakes, stands or trellising. Be careful not to damage the fragile stems of new plants; if you need to fasten anything, use specially coated plant wires or old pieces of fabric torn into strips.
17. Keep Critters Away
There’s little more disappointing than finding your new seedlings destroyed by local animals. Your young plants may scream “Lunch!” to visiting deer or rabbits. Your area nursery can best advise you about these issues for your particular location and help you with screens or chicken wire to protect your plants if necessary. Sometimes simply sprinkling the ground around your plants with cayenne pepper is enough to deter squirrels, chipmunks and other small rodents.
18. Keep Some Seedlings for Containers
If you’re transplanting mostly into the ground, don’t forget to keep some seedlings to transplant into containers. This way you’ll have flowers for your dinner table or pots of fresh herbs you can even bring in at the end of the season for winter enjoyment.
19. Start Modestly and Grow
It’s easy to get a little too ambitious with seed growing and feel overwhelmed. When in doubt, start with a modest garden, and you can always grow more the next year. If you have extra seeds left after you’ve planted your containers, offer them to a neighbor or send them with the kids to school.
20. Collect Your Own Seeds for Next Year
One of the best benefits of growing your own plants is being able to harvest the seeds at the end of the season or from the fruits and vegetables. You can clean and dry these and use them to grow new plants the following year. Once you know which plants thrive in your yard, the seeds you save for the future will be almost guaranteed winners.