Seed-Starting in Three Steps

Sowing seedsYou can start vegetables, herbs, and flowers–both annuals and perennials–from seed. Starting plants from seed is less expensive than purchasing plants from a garden center.

Seed starting will require some time and effort but can be very rewarding. Many more varieties of vegetables and flowers are available in seed than are offered at garden centers or nurseries.

Seed Staring in Containers

Planting seed directly in the garden can sometimes be risky. An unexpected frost or cold spell, a rainstorm, or hot drying winds can reduce germination or wipe out seedlings. Starting seeds in containers indoors and growing them under controlled conditions into robust seedlings can reduce the risk.

Three Basic Steps for Starting Seeds Indoors

Step 1. Fill a small container with moist seed starting mix. Sow seeds in four or six-cell plastic packs or in 3- or 4-inch peat pots or individual bio-containers for plants that grow quickly such as beans or squash. Fill each cell or container nearly to the top with moist seed starting mix. Place one to three seeds in each cell or container. Wet each seed cell with water from a household spray bottle and set the pots in a warm part of the house under fluorescent lights. Place pots or trays in clear plastic bags to create mini-greenhouse. If you want to spend more, you can purchase a seed starting system at a garden center or online.

Step 2. When seeds germinate, place the containers under fluorescent light for 12 to 16 hours a day. Make sure the seed starting mix stays moist, but is not overly wet. When containers dry out set them in a shallow tray filled with water so the starting mix absorbs water from the bottom. Bottom watering will encourage deep rooting and strong plants. Remember to remove the container from the water tray and allow the soil to drain each day. Feed seedlings once a week with a soluble fertilizer diluted to half or one-quarter ordinary rate. Raise the lights as the plants grow to keep the tubes about 2 inches above the top of the leaves.

Step 3. When seedlings grow to 2 or 3 inches tall and develop their first true leaves (which are actually the second set of leaves–the first are embryonic “seed leaves”)–transplant them to individual containers. Use 4-inch plastic or peat pots to grow your seedlings on. Fill the pots with fresh, moistened potting soil. Take each seedling gently by a leaf and lift it gently out of its starting container with a spoon or sharpened pencil or narrow Popsicle stick. Be careful not to disturb the roots and surrounding soil. Poke a hole in the soil of the new container, insert the seedling and firm soil around the roots. Place the newly transplanted seedling in its individual container under the light again, and water and feed as before.

Transplanting seedlingsTransplanting Seedlings to the Garden

When all danger of frost is past in spring and seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, transplant the seedlings into the garden. Before you do, be sure to “harden off” or acclimatize the seedlings to the conditions outdoors. Begin this process by placing the seedlings in an outdoor spot protected from sunlight and wind for a few hours each day increasing to full exposure over several days. In a week or so, the seedlings will be ready for transplanting into the garden.

Planting indoor-grown seedlings in the garden is the same as planting container-grown plants from the garden center. Space plants in the garden according to their size at maturity. Check seed packets or growing guides for proper spacing. Vegetables, annual flowers, and perennials spaced too closely at transplanting will fill in more quickly but will become ungainly and unhealthy as they mature and become over-crowded.

Three Basic Steps for Transplanting Seedlings

Step 1: Before transplanting, water plants in containers. The soil should be moist but not soggy. When you have prepared your plant’s new home in the garden, slip the plant and root ball from the pot trying not to disturb the root ball. Gently loosen congested roots on the bottom and lower side of the root ball. Massage apart and separate roots that encircle the ball.

Step 2: Place the plant into a hole that is slightly larger than the root ball and deep enough to position the top of the root ball at the soil level. Fill the hole about halfway with soil and moisten the root ball. Add the remaining soil, firming it gently around the base of the stem. Water is essential for new transplants. If nature does not oblige, provide 1 inch of water per week for the full growing season–even for drought-tolerant plants. Check watering requirements for each vegetable and herb you plant. Some require more water early or late in the growing season depending upon the crop.

Step 3: Once seedlings are set in the garden, side-dress the new plantings with aged compost. Sprinkle aged compost around each plant. This will both feed the new plants and also conserve soil moisture. Remove any weeds that appear; weeds complete with vegetables and herbs for nutrients and moisture.

Sowing bean seedsDirect Sowing Seeds in the Garden

Some vegetables and flowers can be directly sown where they will grow in the garden. Seed packets will give you basic information on planting–when, how, deep, and how long until germination.

Step 1: Prepare the planting beds in advance of seed sowing. Add several inches of aged compost and aged manure across the top of the planting bed. Next, turn the soil with a spade to a depth of 8 to 10 inches; this will aerate and loosen the soil. Next, remove rocks and roots and then rake the planting bed smooth. (To learn more about your soil and what you need to improve it, call the nearby Cooperative Extension Service.)

Step 2: Sow seeds following the planting directions on the seed packets. For vegetables and most flowers, sow 3 to 5 seeds in the spot where you want to grow a single plant (later, you will thin to the strongest seedling). Cover the seed with a fine layer of soil or compost as recommended on the packet and water gently and thoroughly. Keep the planting bed just moist until seeds germinate.

Step 3: When garden-sown plants have formed their first true leaves, thin plants to the recommended spacing and continue to water regularly. A layer of garden compost or straw around plants or a covering of light horticultural fabric can help conserve moisture.

More tips at:

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Seed Starting Supplies

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Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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