If you are like us you have been poring over seed catalogs all winter anticipating the spring. Well it’s finally that time of year again. Starting from seed is an excellent way to save money and allows for a much larger variety of plants to be grown. Here is information we have compiled through research, reading, trial and error on how to start plants from seed.
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First things first. What do you eat? There’s no sense in planting a whole row of radishes if you can’t stand them and who needs 30 pie pumpkins (unless you really like pumpkin pie)! When you go to plan your garden try to think of what you use and how much of it to plan accordingly. If you actually do want 30 pie pumpkins, do you have enough space? It’s important to plan for the space you have or you will end up with too many seedlings and no place to put them.
Another thing to keep in mind is the age of your seeds. Older seeds take longer to germinate and sometimes may not germinate at all. It is important to obtain high quality seeds that have been stored in good conditions (cool and dry) and have not been sitting on the shelf too long. The viability of a seed in storage certainly varies but it is a good idea to use fresh vegetable seeds that are not more than a few years old if you are looking for a high germination rate.
Figure out what you are going to plant inside and what you will be directly seeding outdoors. Check the backs of your seed packets for this. Plants like tomatoes and broccoli do great being started indoors but carrots, corn or peas are usually direct seeded. There’s usually an exception to most rules but as a general guideline it’s best to go by what the seed packet suggests. The seed packet will also explain when it is best to plant outdoors. If it suggests that you start seeds a certain amount of weeks before your last frost date you can check with your local extension office to find out when the most probable last frost date is in your region.
Basic Needs for Healthy Growing
Potting Soil/Germinating Mix- Many germinating mixes on the market are already free of animal products. Our personal favorite is the Eco-Co Coir Germinating Mix from Gardener’s Supply because coir is a renewable resource, but there are many products out there. It is important for your soil mix to be able to provide good drainage, aeration and absorb moisture. If you are planning on making your own soil mix, books we have found helpful are Growing Green by Ian Tolhurst and The New Seed Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel. If your plants will be in their pots for more than 4-7 weeks plan on supplying them with some extra nutrition. Vegan gardeners can achieve this through the use of compost made with green materials, commercial fertilizers that are specifically free of animal products or liquid feeds made with nettles or comfrey.
Containers- Containers can be store-bought or re-purposed. Re-purposed containers could include soy milk cartons, juice boxes, yogurt tubs or even toilet paper rolls. Be creative! The important thing is that they provide proper drainage. Of course use common sense here and don’t use anything that contained materials that could be hazardous to your health. Containers should be clean. If re-using old pots be sure to give them a good wash to avoid passing on diseases to seedlings.
Heat- Seeds need heat to germinate. Be sure to place your seeds in a warm location. If necessary, supplementary heat can be provided by special heating pads made specifically for this purpose (available at garden centers). According to Greenhouse Gardener’s Companion by Shane Smith a temperature of 65-75 degrees F (18-21 degrees C) is optimal.
Moisture- Soil should be kept fairly damp but not soaking wet because this could cause a mold situation. Keeping your plant trays covered until the seeds germinate will keep things moist and humid. Cover for your plants could include the top of a germinating tray that is specific for this purpose or if you are using re-purposed containers, plastic wrap or clear plastic baggies would work as well. Just be sure that there is room for some air to circulate. Once leaves begin to emerge you will need to take off the covering.
Light- Once your seeds germinate they will require sunlight. If they are too far from an adequate light source they will become leggy as they reach towards the light. A sunny window will probably be enough until they are brought outdoors but supplementary light sources are available from garden supply and hydroponic stores.
Time to get your hands dirty!
Soaking your seeds before planting can greatly increase their moisture level and help them to germinate more quickly. To do this simply put the seeds in a bowl of warm water and let soak overnight. If you miss this step it is not the end of the world but it can be very helpful. Some seeds may also require scarification (damage to the seed coat) or a period of cold before being planted. To find out if this is necessary check the seed packet and/or the company you bought the seeds from for more information. If you acquired your seeds from a friend or seed swap and don’t know this information a quick google search can usually supply the information you need on your individual plant.
Once you are ready to plant your seeds you should be mindful of the depth you are planting them. This can best be explained by again checking the seed packet. If seeds are planted too deep they will die before reaching the surface.
If your plants outgrow their containers before it is time to plant them outdoors you will need to transplant them to a bigger container. Wait to transplant your seedlings until they have developed a second set of true leaves.