Get a jump on spring gardening with simple seed starting tips. Learn how to choose the right seeds, create the perfect environment, and care for your seedlings for a bountiful harvest.
As the winter months drag on, many gardeners (like me) are itching to get a jump on their spring planting. Seed starting is a great way to get a head start on the growing season and ensure a bountiful harvest of herbs, vegetables and even flowers. It’s also a thrifty way to garden without spending as much money on nursery grown plants.
The thing is – I am a plant hoarder – a crazy plant lady. I can never have too many plants in my garden. Not so much with house plants. I love to have a busy, crowded, wild looking cottage garden with LOADS of flowering perennials.
My herb supply needs to be overflowing with greenery to support my personal chef’s (i.e. husband) cooking habits. As for vegetables, – we need a lot to eat fresh or make into sauces and canned preserves.
So a $2 or so packet of seeds – may lead to 20 to 50 viable plants – or I could spend $7 to $20 dollars on a nursery grown plant in the spring. (Well I will still do that, but more plants now is better). Plant greed – pure and simple – I must have plants.
It’s not like every seed starting project of mine is successful, or that every seed grows – but by and large – we get more plants less expensively by starting more!
This post is about real-life at home seed starting and includes tips for successful seed starting, from choosing the right seeds to creating the perfect growing environment.
Choose the Right Seeds
The conventional wisdom in seed starting is “choose the best seeds.”
“The first step in successful seed starting is choosing the right seeds. Look for high-quality, non-GMO seeds that are well-suited to your local climate and growing conditions. You can purchase seeds from a reputable garden center or online seed company, and make sure to read the planting instructions carefully to ensure that you’re choosing the right seeds for your garden.”
I do agree with this partly. I have had more success with brand name seed packets, carefully chosen from my garden centre than the packets that I have purchased from Amazon. Where do these seeds come from anyway? Will they grow in my climate?
BUT, I have also been successful with free seeds – saved from last years’ garden, or given to me by my neighbour, or saved from a grocery store spaghetti squash or red pepper. Grow what you like!
Some seeds are more difficult to germinate than others. Many seeds require a period of cold before planting (so I put them in the refrigerator for the recommended time), scarification (a method of scratching the seed surface – which is too scary for me), or may require sunlight or warmth. I google whatever I am planting to look at the requirements, as sometimes the packages don’t even provide this information. I’m all for choosing seeds that germinate easily, aren’t you?
BUT – if I really want a special plant, then it is worth the experiment of trying refrigeration or scarification. I have had limited success with these methods, but I enjoyed the process.
This year I’m germinating A LOT of basil and rosemary. I’m also starting some perennial flowers for our northern island cottage. I am looking for hardy perennials that don’t mind acid soil and shade. It’s not time yet to start my vegetables, so I haven’t decided on those yet!
I know when do I start my vegetables, I will be sprouting loads of tomatoes and peppers. These are always successful in our garden.
Time Your Seed Starting
When starting seeds indoors in spring, it’s best to use a reputable planting calendar. I always use the Farmer’s Almanac free calendar. I type in my postal code to provide the correct seed starting timing for my location. Planting seeds indoors (or outdoors) at the right times allows seedlings to be ready at the optimal time to plant outdoors. This is because the plants will be more mature and ready to produce fruit or vegetables sooner than if they were started too late.
I have occasionally started seeds too early – my tomatoes for example. They are easy to germinate, but when I started them a month too early (in February) – I ended up with plants with long skinny stems. They were OK eventually – but a little funny looking and spindly. Starting seeds too early can result in the plants being ready to plant outside when it is still too cold outside. So the plants stay inside in crowded pots for longer than they should. They don’t get enough sun – which makes them “leggy”!
Create the Perfect Growing Environment
Once you’ve chosen your seeds, it’s time to create the perfect growing environment for your seedlings. You’ll need a seed starting tray or pot, a good quality seed starting mix, and a warm, sunny location. Keep your seeds moist but not waterlogged, and provide them with plenty of light using grow lights or a sunny windowsill.
Now, thrifty girl that I am, I have planted seeds many different ways – some successful, some not. I have never used grow lights – as I rely on my sunny windowsills, and hope to time my garden right to get plants outdoors as soon as my location has been declared frost-free.
I have used soil from my garden – and unhappily brought in hibernating fungus gnats. You don’t want these, trust me. I have tried different soil sterilization methods – but still had the same results – so I am sticking with purchased seed starting soil. It is supposed to be heat treated to destroy creatures and pathogens – but read the label. This soil should also reduce the incidence of fungus growing during germination – but soil is never truly sterile.
I like to spoil myself by using new seed starting trays and fresh storebought soil. It breaks my heart to lose seedlings to fungus and gnats. It is possible to re-use old seed starting trays by washing them thoroughly and soaking them for about 15 minutes in a chlorine bleach and water solution (about a 1 to 9 ratio).
It’s also easy to make our own seed starting containers with recycled items (It’s kinda fun). During the first days of the pandemic, when we couldn’t visit stores to buy seed starting supplies, I happily made seed starting pots with toilet paper tubes in recycled margarine containers – covered with clear plastic bags. These work – go ahead and be creative if you like.
There are also seed starting sets that come with refillable jiffy-pots. These are potting media (typically peat moss) wrapped in a fiber netting that expand when exposed to water. These are easy to use because each little jiffy-pot can be put directly in the ground when it’s time to transplant.
Babying the Seedlings
As the seedlings begin to grow, it’s important to provide them with proper care to ensure their success. I regularly water them – often by just spraying the soil surface. I leave the clear cover on the tray until the seedlings have all sprouted, and then I give them an ever-increasing exposure to fresh air every day. The clear cover keeps my little seeds and seedlings from drying out and quickly dying. On the other hand, leaving the sprouts in over moistened soil can lead to a white fluffy fungus on the soil. The best solution for this is to give the plants time without the cover on to decrease the humidity! Monitor your seedlings regularly and adjust your care routine as needed.
Transplant the Seedlings
Once your seedlings have grown to a suitable size, it’s time to transplant them into your garden or pots. Some of my plants will go straight into the garden in our in-town house on or around our frost-free date in mid May. Others will go into small pots to travel to our summer cottage. I will plant these in a good garden centre soil with fertilizer to give them a head start. (My cottage garden soil is nothing more than decomposed pine needles – so I will take a little earth with me!)
Plants should not be transplanted until they have developed more than their first set of leaves. Cotyledons are the first set of leaves which appear when a seed sprouts. They are actually part of the seed – and are shaped differently than the “true” leaves of a plant. The “true” leaves will begin to appear after some time. It’s important to wait for these to appear before transplanting.
Seedlings should be transplanted before they become too crowded in their containers. Overcrowding can lead to stunted growth and other issues. As a general rule of thumb, seedlings should be transplanted when they have reached a height of 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) and have at least one set of true leaves.
It’s also important to “harden off” seedlings before tossing them into the wilderness. This means gradually exposing the plants to the outdoors when weather permits, to allow them to acclimatize to direct sunlight and cooler weather a little bit at a time before planting them directly in the ground. This helps to prepare the seedlings for the shock of being transplanted.
When you are ready to transplant choose a location with the appropriate level of sun and the best soil that you can manage, – and don’t forget to keep looking after them!
When transplanting, make sure to handle the seedlings carefully and avoid damaging the roots. Dig a hole in the soil or larger container that is slightly larger than the seedling’s root ball, and gently place the seedling into the hole. Fill in the hole with soil and water the seedling well.
Seed Starting is a Rewarding Project
Seed starting is a fun and rewarding way to get a head start on the spring garden. With the right seeds, growing environment, and care routine, we can enjoy a more full and productive garden while saving $$$ come springtime. Starting seeds on cold winter days helps me to get my gardening joy going – and turns my cabin fever into spring fever!
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