You’ve decided to plant a garden! You have a plan, a vision, goals (if not see my post on starting your first garden)! Now what?! It’s time for starting your seeds! Don’t be intimidated! While starting your plant babies from seeds can be daunting, it is very doable!
Before you go thinking I am some sort of natural gardening wizard, green thumb, guru–trust me, I’m not. Check out my Black Thumb: Diary of a Wannabe Gardener series to here more about my early gardening experiences. I was terrified when I first started my little vegetable seeds two years ago and, I’ll be honest, the first go-round went VERY poorly (we are talking seedling apocalypse). The second attempt was mildly successful. The third attempt showed an amazing improvement. And, my fourth attempt is off to a phenomenal start! Follow these simple seed starting tips for your successful garden!
Step 1: Evaluating Your Resources
Seed Starting Takes Time
Before you ever put a single seed into the dirt, you need to take stock of your capabilities and resources. Growing plants from seed is a time commitment and requires certain environmental factors to be successful.
Your seedlings will need to be watered every day. They may need to be thinned and re-potted You will have to fertilize your seedlings at certain intervals. Also, you must and “harden” them off before being transplanted. If you are a very busy person, travel frequently, or have a crazy schedule, you may be better off buying plants at your local nursery.
Seed Starting Takes Plenty of Space and Light
Additionally, in order to raise successful seedlings, you need plenty of space and light. This has been my biggest obstacle. The windows in my home are all east and west-facing, unfortunately, the west-facing windows are heavily shaded. In order to get plenty of light for my seedlings, I have had to add a shelf to one of my windowsills, buy a miniature greenhouse, build an outdoor greenhouse (errr, have my husband build it), and invest in grow lights. My ability to position my seedlings inadequate light is further complicated by two curious cats. Apparently, they are unfamiliar with the old adage of what curiosity does to the cat . . .
Step 2: Making a Plan
When it comes to gardening, I think having a plan is essential. This is certainly no less true when it comes to seed starting. Having a plan means deciding what seeds to buy and from where, purchasing necessary supplies, designating a place (or places) to actually grow them, determining when to plant, and developing a care schedule. If you want to know more about developing an overall garden plan, see my post Four Simple Tips for Starting Your First Garden
Step 3: Choosing Your Seeds
Choosing seeds is my favorite! When those bright colorful seed catalogs come in the mail, it feels like Christmas! Flipping through the glossy pages of brightly colored flowers, fruits, and vegetables it’s hard not to get lost in your gardening day-dreams. Sigh . . .
If you are wondering how to get those seed catalogs, most seed companies and nurseries will send them free of charge! Just visit the company website and request a catalog. Personally, I recommend I HIGHLY recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They are reasonably priced, have wonderful heirloom seed varieties, and always send me a few packets of free seeds to try with my order! I have also had good luck with Burpee and Ferry Morse. You can find Ferry Morse at Walmart and ACE Hardware.
This year I ordered for the first time from Spring Hill Nursery, so we will see how that goes. I have also heard good things about Michigan Bulb Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds (awesome catalog), and Gurney’s. As I said, seed catalogs are like the Sears Toy Catalog from when I was a kid. However, it is important to be at least somewhat practical. When determining what type of seeds to grow there are a several factors to consider.
USDA Hardiness Zone
First, you should choose plants appropriate for your climate (see USDA Hardiness Zone Map). This is not as important for annuals (plants that only bloom one season), but it is essential for perennials (plants that come back year after year). This is also important for choosing particular varieties. If you have a very short growing season, like me, you may want to choose “early” varieties of tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, corn, etc.
Easy or Difficult to Grow Seeds
Second, before starting your seeds, you should take into account which plants are considered easier to grow (particularly if you are a beginner). Most seed catalogs and websites will give you this information in the description. Some seeds require darkness to germinate, some require light. Still others need just the right temperature. In my experience, I have found flowers to be more difficult overall.
Step 4: Gathering Your Supplies
In the last two years, my gardening supplies have increased significantly–I have more on my Amazon wish list for next year! I have divided my recommended supplies into essential and optional items for seed starting.
First, you absolutely must have containers to grow your seeds in and some type of seed starting medium. I have had the very best luck using these Jiffy Miniature Greenhouses with peat pellets. They have a very high germination rate and are very compact. The only downside is that you will need to transplant the seedlings at some point. I have also used these Jiffy Peat Pots, seed trays, and even plastic cups filled with seed starting mix (just make sure whatever container you use is clean and has good drainage).
Another thing to consider is where your plants will ultimately end up. Are you going to grow them in containers or transplant them into a garden? If you are going to grow in containers you may want to plant them in their final container from the beginning (depending on the plant).
The next essentials you will need are for marking your seeds. You have to know which seed baby is which, after-all. There are some cute little markers that you can buy I usually use either craft popsicle sticks or masking tape and a sharpie.
Obviously, (at least I hope it is obvious) you need to water your seedlings and keep them moist. If you buy a seed starting tray or greenhouse that has a plastic cover, you are set. Otherwise, use good old saran wrap and rubber bands! You should make sure to have a small watering can and a spray bottle as well.
Fertilizer is another essential. Young seedlings typically need a high phosphorus fertilizer to promote root growth. There are specialized fertilizers for different types of plants and flowers as they grow.
Now, grow lights are not essential per se. If you have adequate space and sunlight for seedlings in your windows, don’t worry about it. However, if you think you will run out of window space or if you have too much shade, I recommend grow lights. I bought mine at Walmart last year. They are OK, I don’t think I could really recommend them. These fantastic grow lights are on my wishlist for next year. If you try them, let me know how they work for you!
Finally, the non-essential–but very cool–greenhouse and heat mat. This is the first year I am legitimately using either. I bought my mini greenhouse on Amazon. I am LOVING it so far. It is perfect for protecting my seedlings from the cats, and its lightweight enough that I can move it outside to take full advantage of the afternoon sunshine, and then back inside when the night temperatures take a dip.
This year, I am also loving my heat mat (also purchased on Amazon) to help germinate my heat-loving tomato, basil, and pepper seeds. It is currently plugged in on my windowsill keeping my seedlings warm despite the cool weather.
Step 5: Preparing Your Seedling Nursery
Once you have your seeds and supplies, it is time to set up your nursery and work area. Ideally, the two would be in the same space, but this is not always possible. Take my seed starting set-up for example. Currently, I have all of my supplies arranged on a folding table in a sort of all-purpose room. I have a nursery in my basement laundry room where I can protect my seedlings from the cats while they germinate. The laundry room is almost always nice and warm from the dryer. I can cover my seed trays with a towel (if they require darkness to germinate) or put them under a grow light (if they require light to germinate).
Once my seedlings reach a certain height (about an inch) I have been moving them to my additional nurseries in a sunny windowsill (in a room closed-off from cats) or in my mini-greenhouse (which the cats have been, thus far, unable to breach). The reason I relocate my seedlings is that I have had problems with them getting “leggy” under the grow lights.
It is a hodgepodge system that I have going, but it works. For your nursery, you simply need space to put your seed trays, protection from pets or children (I have two of those as well), and adequate light and warmth, everything else is gravy.
Step 6: Creating a Planting and Care Schedule
Seed Starting Spreadsheet
As soon as you have your seeds, you can start planning your planting and care schedule. There are a variety of apps and websites to help with this. I use, and recommend, Smart Gardener. I also recommend simply making a spreadsheet and/ or using a handwritten journal to track things.
In order to create your plan, you will need the information that is printed on your seed packages–days to germination, days to harvest, planting instructions, and care and growing instructions. Not all seed packets are created equal so you may need to do a bit of additional research for each plant.
Start Your Seeds Indoors or Outdoors?
Once you have all the information, plan whether or not to start indoors and then when to start indoors to ensure a harvest within your growing season. You will also need to determine when you can plant outside or transplant. Keep in mind that you won’t be planting all your seeds at the same time, you can organize your plantings into batches.
It is also helpful to include planting depth, spacing, special germination requirements like light or heat, and when to fertilize and with what. Typically, seed packets do not contain much information on the actual growing of the plant once it has germinated, so be prepared to research further on fertilizing.
For example, in my high altitude, Zone 4 location, I have a very short growing season. If I want my tomato plants to produce actual tomatoes before the first frost dates in September, I have to start them in doors in March. I figure this out by looking at the average and projected frost dates in the Farmer’s Almanac and the “approximate days to harvest” on the seed packet.
To determine when to transplant your seeds, consider your average last frost date and whether or not your seedlings are frost-tolerant. Additionally, some seeds, like corn, carrots, turnips, and peas are best started outdoors. This is usually indicated on the packet and whether or not they can be started before the last frost.
Step 7: Planting and Germinating
At last, the fun part. Some seeds require being refrigerated, soaked, or “nicked” before planting, so be sure to read those seed packet instructions. Prepare your pots or seed trays with seed starting mix or peat pellets (always read the directions) and plant your seeds at the specified depth. Don’t worry too much about spacing at this stage, you can always thin your seedlings later. Generally, I plant two seeds to a pellet or pot.
Make sure your soil is nice and moist, but not wet, and cover them with either plastic lids or saran wrap with a rubber band to hold them in place. Label each individual seed type on the pot or tray. If you have remaining seeds, you can save them for the following year. Put them in airtight containers and store them in a cool, dry location.
Next, put your trays or pots in the prepared nursery and wait. I like to record the date that I planted the seeds on the container and in my garden journal.
Step 8: Watering
During the germination stage keep your soil moist. I recommend checking them every day and spritzing with a water bottle if it starts to look dry. You may or may not need to moisten the soil every day, but I would check every day–once in the morning and once in the evening.
Once your seedlings emerge from the soil, you must remove the plastic covering so they can get air. Without the plastic, the soil will dry faster, so be prepared to check them and water them every day. I recommend setting a reminder on your phone, but I’m forgetful.
At this point I usually switch to a watering can. Remember that seedlings are delicate! Don’t drown them and try not to water the plant itself, but rather water at the roots. If your seedlings are in trays you can also water from below to encourage root growth. Just make sure that the soil is staying just moist. You can test the moistness with this handy dandy Moisture, Light and Ph Meter!
Step 9: Thinning and Re-potting
Once your seedlings are an inch or so tall, it is time to thin them. Thinning refers to pulling or cutting the “extra” seedlings in each container. You can’t have too many or they will compete for nutrients. I usually choose the strongest looking seedling (tallest, sturdiest stem, most leaves) and snip the seedlings around it. I don’t pull them if they are near the seedling I want to save because I don’t want to damage the roots.
Depending on the type of plant and the size of container you may need to re-pot your seedlings. For example, I start my tomatoes in peat pellets. When they are about two inches tall and have their first set of “true” leaves, I transplant them to small pots that are about 4 inches in diameter. I bury them further down, so that more of the stem is covered. The plant will grow new roots off the stem and be stronger. I prefer to use peat pots at this stage, because when I transfer them to their final home in my big outdoor containers I can plant them, pot and all, and not disturb the roots.
Step 10: Fertilizing
Let me make this disclaimer here: I am not a fertilizer expert! Fertilizing is governed, at least somewhat, by the type of plant. So, I would encourage you to research the fertilizer needs of YOUR specific plants. However, I have gathered a few “rules of thumb.”
Typically, fertilizers should not be applied until your seedlings have there 2nd set of “true” leaves. The first fertilizers you use should be high in phosphorus because plants need this for root growth. Always follow the directions on the package, when mixing your fertilizer, for ratios of water to fertilizer at various plant ages and growing conditions. Most fertilizers are designed to be used about every two weeks but, as always, defer to the directions on your fertilizer package. Finally, when applying your fertilizer apply directly to the soil, not the plant itself.
Step 11: Hardening-Off
Hardening-off refers to the process of getting your plants ready to survive outside. When we start seeds indoors we are raising coddled, soft little baby plants. If they are going to thrive in a hostile environment of wind, rain, sun and temperature shifts, we need to ease them into it. Its sort of like raising kids.
Typically, hardening plants can be accomplished in about a week. So, plan to start the process about a week before you would like to transplant them. Use your individual plants as a guide, some are considered hardy and can be brought out when the temps are 40° or higher. Half-hardy plants need temps consistently above 45°.
Start slowly, put your plants outside in the late morning for about two or three hours. Choose a sheltered, shaded location for this first outing. Be sure to plan it for a day that is mild in temperature and weather. Gradually increase the seedlings outdoor time by an hour or two every day. Obviously, bring them in if a storm develops unexpectedly.
Step 12: Transplanting
Congratulations! You have survived starting your plants from seed. Once you have hardened them off transplant them to their final homes. Take care to dig a hole that is plenty deep, even burying part of the stem. Gently, remove them from their seed (if they are in peat pots you can plant the whole pot), being careful not to disrupt the roots. Once you have planted them, fertilize with a week fertilizer and water thoroughly.
Good luck and get planting!
I hope you find these tips helpful! As I have said, I still consider myself a beginner, like you. I was always so intimidated by gardening and never thought it was something I could do successfully. These 12 steps are the result of much research, trial and error (perhaps slightly more error), and my experiences over the last few growing seasons. They are meant to get you started and help you feel confident as you start your journey. Below you will find some products that I have used and loved (and a few I am lusting after) as well as some links to resources I have found invaluable to my gardening journey!
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