You 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 rain storm, or hot drying winds can reduce germination or wipe out seedlings. Starting seeds in container indoors and growing them under controlled conditions into robust seedlings can reduce the risk.
There are three basic steps for starting seeds indoors:
1. Fill a small container with moist seed starting mix. Sow the seeds and keep them moist until germination. Sow seed in four or six cell plastic packs or in 3- or 4-inch peat pots, bio-containers, or plastic 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, then 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 out of direct sunlight. You can keep the seed moist by spraying or by enclosing the containers in plastic bags. If you want to spend more, you can purchase a seed starting system at a garden center or online.
2. When your seeds germinate, place the containers under light for at least 12 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.
3. When your 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 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 fill around it to bury the roots. (You can suspend larger seedlings in a container while you add potting soil around the roots.) Place the newly transplanted seedling in its individual container under the light again, and water and feed as before.
When all danger of frost is past in spring and seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, you can transplant your 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 a spot protected from sunlight and wind for a few hours each day increasing to full exposure over several days. In a week or so, your 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 the plants 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.
Before transplanting, water the container and let it drain until the soil is 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.
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 soil level. Fill the hole about halfway with soil and moisten the root ball with water. Add the remaining soil, firming it gently around 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 the watering requirements for growing vegetables and herbs–some require more water early or late in the growing season depending upon the crop.
A mulch of well-rotted garden compost or grass clippings will help conserve moisture, improve the soil in your garden, and keep weeds down while young plants are small.
Direct seeding 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 unitl germination.
Preparing planting beds in advance of seeding is very important. Even poor soils can be improved with the simple addition of garden compost and well-rotted manure. For most soils, turning the soil with a spade to a depth of 8 to 10 inches is sufficient to aerate and loosen the soil. Next, remove rocks and roots and add several inches of compost and organic amendments. (To learn more about your soil and what you need to improve it, call your Cooperative Extension.)
Once your soil is prepared rake it smooth. Now, sow the seeds following the planting directions on the seed packets. For vegetables and most flowers you can 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 seeds moist until they germinate.
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.
Want to grow 80 vegetables and herbs from seed? Check out THE KITCHEN GARDEN GROWERS’ GUIDE.