Beginning gardeners tend to rely mostly on transplants purchased at their local garden center. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Seed starting can be intimidating and failure does occur. Letting someone else deal with that and just getting your hands dirty when you start gardening is a great way to limit discouragement among new gardeners. But if you’re feeling particularly brave, have some gardening experience under you belt, or just want to try new types of vegetables that just aren’t available as transplants, starting your own plants from seed is a fantastic way to go. And really, it’s not as scary as it sounds. There are just a few rules you need to keep in mind.
Have you ever been to a big box store or even just a hardware store and perused their garden center? Lord knows I have, even though I know better. They are a good place to start dabbling in growing plants, but definitely not a good option when you want to get serious. If you want to get serious you need to go to plant nurseries or start getting stuff online. Basically you need to buy your growing supplies from people that actually know what the hell they are doing.
Here is the ubiquitous seed saving kit. It has a bottom tray, cell packs that go inside and then a clear cover that fits over the top. Now I have a greenhouse to start all my seedlings in so there’s no need for me to use the top cover. Also, because it’s outside, I don’t need to have the bottom tray to contain the water. But that bottom tray isn’t harmless. the problem with it is that it holds the water. That’s the intended purpose of it after all. But with seedlings, holding water isn’t really a good thing. You want that water to drain away from them. If the cells stay even partially submerged in water they’ll develop fungal problems (even when using sterile seed starting soil) which invariably lead to:
Damping off can wipe out all of your seedlings if you aren’t careful. Of course this doesn’t mean you should let your seeds go bone dry but you should allow the top surface of the soil go dry between watering and don’t allow them to sit in water. It can also help to put a layer of perlite on the top of the surface of the soil.
If you do need to start your seedlings indoors and can’t just let the water run all over you will need to make sure to empty out the water from the tray after every time you water so you don’t have them soaking in it.
Light is also an important aspect of seed starting. Placing your seedlings next to a bright window just won’t cut it. You’ll end up with weak seedlings that become leggy. What you will need is a grow light. Don’t worry, you don’t have to wander into a shady hydroponics store to find one of these. They are readily available at any local hardware store or online. A fluorescent hanging light with plant or full spectrum bulb is all you need. You will need to make sure that the light is on a timer and that it hangs just a few inches from the tops of the plants. As the plants grow, adjust the height of the lamp.
If you don’t have space in your house, garage, basement or shed to start seedlings another option is to get a mini greenhouse or use cold frames. I used one for years with great success until I outgrew it. If you have just a standard home vegetable garden, though, these should work fine for you. If you live in a cold climate your best choice will be ones that use polycarbonate greenhouse panels which are insulated as opposed to the plastic sheeting that some of the cheaper versions use.
A Word on Soil
What you choose for soil can make all the difference in the success of your seedlings. Garden soil, that is, soil pulled right out of your garden beds is probably the one you definitely don’t want to go with. As mentioned above, damping off is a serious concern for seedlings. If you are doing a small amount of plants from seed you can get bags of sterile seed starting mix. Peppers are the exception. For whatever reason, pepper seeds, which are temperamental to begin with, don’t like a lot of peat moss in their seed mix. Instead, I start them in Orchid mix (not the same as orchid bark) which doesn’t contain peat or sphagnum moss. If you are doing larger amounts of seedlings I just use Rose Care mix to get them going and have had great luck with it.
Starting the Seeds
There are several ways you can start seeds. For some plants like carrots, beets, parsnips, radish and other root vegetables (not including onions, leeks, etc.) and corn, arugula, looseleaf lettuce and beans direct sowing, or planting them directly in your garden soil, is the best way to start them. Carrots require a bit more consideration due to being planted near the surface but also needing to stay moist for germination to occur. The best way to handle this is to cover the bed right after sowing and watering with either cardboard or plywood until they start to come up. Parsnips also require something a little different. They tend to have poor germination rates so I start them on a damp paper towel in a plastic bag or tupperware container. Once I see the little tail of root popping out from the seed I will carefully plant it in the garden. I’ve found that this gives me much higher rates of success.
Squash, melons, watermelons and cucumbers can be either direct sown or started. Care should be taken when starting them indoors as they have very sensitive root systems. Never allow them to become root bound and when transplanting them, do not disturb their roots. If you want to get a jump start on the season start them in 4″ pots and once they germinated and break the surface plant them very carefully. This will reduce the likelihood of transplant shock.
For plants like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants you can either start them in 4″ pots if you don’t have many, or if you produce hundreds of them, like us, start them in flats and then transplant them into 4″ pots.
For smaller plants like head lettuce, spinach, onions and chard (beets I also like to start this way) and also for peas (to get them nice a big before exposing them to slugs and snails), and brassicas, you can start them in flats. Make sure that the flats have holes in the bottoms so they can drain. I prefer the flats because I can plant a bunch of plants all together and then just tease them out when it’s time to plant. I almost always end up with extra plants which I then pass on to other people. Generally the cool season vegetables don’t get put in the greenhouse and are fine being started outside.
When it’s Time
I’ll admit that I’m bad at hardening off. A combination of being busy and being lazy I never get around to doing it. For the more frost tender plants I’ll just leave the greenhouse door open in increasing increments until I am sure that the last frost has come and gone. Since the cool season vegetable are started outside, I don’t really have to worry about them. If you want to be a bit more methodical than I am with hardening off, simply ease your plants into being on their own outside. Let them spend a few hours each day in a sunny spot. Increase the amount of time they are outside on their own until you have them out there almost the entire day.
Try to plant out when it’s either overcast or later in the day if it’s warmer so as not to completely shock the seedlings. Don’t try to over handle the roots and only plant out the plants that have a nice large healthy root system but are not root bound. The exception is to transplant squash, cucumbers, watermelons and melons before they have a large root system.. Also it’s key to water them well right after planting them out. I don’t use any B-1 or transplant starter because you don’t really need to. Don’t over water either. They will get wilty no matter how much water you give them. Just offer them some shade if you can and let them bounce back on their own.
Starting your own seeds is rewarding, will save you money and expand your horizons. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you the nursery will still have what you need.