Can we talk seeds for a while? Esther and I spent some time last week starting some seeds so hopefully we won’t need to buy transplants this year. As we did, we talked about the different size seeds and why some do better being started in little pots instead of in the ground.
Now, all seeds can be started in the ground (that’s called direct seeding or direct sowing) that’s how they survive “in the wild” after all. But there are reasons to still start seeds (or buy transplants) instead of direct sowing.
Benefits of Starting Seedlings
The smaller the seed the harder it will be to get it to grow when direct seeded. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just harder. A bean seed will germinate just fine in the garden but a lettuce seed may or may not germinate in the garden (this is why I just sprinkle lots of lettuce seeds in the general area I want to grow lettuce). All of these plants have pretty small seeds and do well when started inside, spinach, lettuce, chard, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and tomatoes.
A short growing season means that some plants must be started inside. ok, if you only have a 90 day growing season, you can’t grow watermelons….unless you start them at least 4 weeks before your average last frost date. They need at least 120 days to mature and 90 days just won’t cut it. BUT when I say growing season, I don’t mean just from last frost to first frost, I mean when the climate is such that you can actually grow that particular vegetable. In zone 9 (where I am) we have 9 months between last frost in February and first frost in November. But we can’t really grow anything but okra, basil, moringa and peppers from mid July until mid September. So our spring/summer growing season is really only about 5 months. This means that if I want to get a good harvest of tomatoes, melons, beans or squash I need to go ahead and start those early or buy transplants.
Succession planting can be done by starting seeds indoors. When I plant my transplants (either the ones I’ve started from seed or ones I’ve purchased) I also direct sow some seeds. That way I can, hopefully, have a full season harvest. Or if something attacks my transplants I have backup. This happened one year when we had serious issues with vine borers. We were able to get rid of the borers but they destroyed our first planting of squash and zucchini. Since we sowed some seeds with the transplants, those seeds had already germinated and we were able to still have a harvest before it got too hot.
If you’ve had a problem with seeds germinating or pests destroying your seedlings, starting seeds indoors is a good idea. Sometimes plants just need protection when they’re little. This is my main motivation for starting seeds this year. Last year I decided to direct sow most of our seeds. We had a lot going on and I just couldn’t get it together to start seeds when I needed to. Then we had this crazy pill bug invasion, and I know pill bugs aren’t supposed to eat green stuff, only brown stuff, I’m here to tell you they do. I’d go out in the morning and my bean seedlings would be eaten through the stems (not cut from cutworms) and the pill bugs would be on the leaves of the other bean plants and the squash plants just munching on them. I’m hoping that if I plant transplants this year they will be tough enough that the pill bugs (or cutworms) won’t bother them.
Starting seeds is cheaper and the variety is greater than buying transplants. Let’s face it, when we buy transplants we’re paying someone else to start our seeds for us. And that is totally fine. But they don’t always want to start the seeds that I want and so I give up a level of control over my garden when I chose to not start my own seeds.
How to Start Seeds Indoors
When I say “starting seeds indoors” I don’t necessarily mean inside your house. You can use a garage, greenhouse, shed, or even a covered patio depending on your climate. Because I live in a very mild winter climate, I just use my front porch to start seeds. If you want to learn more about how your climate affects your garden, we have a short ecourse that will teach you about frost dates, cold hardy and heat zones, day length, chill hours, and much more.
You need seeds. Determine what seeds you want to start inside. Maybe you only want to do a couple of tomato plants. That’s great. Maybe you want to do 250 – you know some of everything. That’s great, too. It doesn’t really matter, just decide.
We have some great planting calculator worksheets to help you figure out how many plants you need to feed your family. Just enter your email in the form below and they’ll be emailed to you.
You need soil. I personally use seed starter soil mix that I buy in bags from the store. There are lots of seed starting soil mix recipes so if you’d prefer to just mix your own that’s fine too. Here’s a simple recipe from Reformation Acres. If you want a couple more that are more “from scratch” here are some good ones from Better Hens and Gardens. I’ve also read of people just using garden soil – you know from their garden – to start their seeds. I really think seeds are hardier than we give them credit for.
I LOVE my soil blocker. This is our third year to use it and I just really, really love it. I love that I can get 50 seeds started in one tray. I love that I don’t have to try to save or round up recyclables (although I do save any pots that transplants come in). And I love that it’s just enough soil to keep the transplants healthy until they can go in the ground and they don’t get root bound.
But you don’t have to use a soil blocker to start seeds you can also use real containers, you know the kind your buy in the garden section of the store and pay a fortune for. Or you could use newspaper and make your own pots, or use toilet paper rolls, or egg cartons, or how about those cute k-cups, or 20 oz soda bottles for a greenhouse affect (this is especially good for those with a really short season)
You need light. This can be sunlight or grow lights. If you have a sunny window sill or areas, use that. If not, you might need to set up an area with a grow light and maybe a heating pad for things like tomatoes and peppers. Or you could even make a light hut – which I think is pretty cool.
You need water. Water is a key ingredient to germination (or sprouting) success. Your soil should be wet when you put it in your containers or use your soil blocker. Every day or so, just take a spray bottle and spray the soil with water. As the plants grow, keep them moist but not dripping wet or your roots will rot.
That’s pretty much it. Starting seeds is a simple process but there are many variables. Sometimes you’ll get amazing transplants and sometimes you won’t. If you’re just starting out, think of this first year as an experiment – whatever happens is great because you’re going to learn from it.
Before Transplanting Your Seedlings
Once you’re weather starts to warm up, don’t just take your seedlings from under the grow lights and plop them in your garden. If they’ve been truly started indoors you will need to harden them off. Here’s a great hardening off guide from 104 Homestead.
If you live in a mild climate and start your seeds on your porch like I do, you don’t need to worry about hardening them off.
oh, And make sure you keep notes of what seeds you start and when. I promise you, you won’t remember if you don’t. If you need some garden note organization help, I suggest The Gardening Notebook.
What are some of your seed starting tips or questions?