It’s true that there are some types of plants out there that sprout so easily, there is little you need to do to ensure they will grow. For example, one late fall my children haphazardly tossed some pumpkin seeds into the yard, only to find a pumpkin plant sprouting up the following spring. As an experienced gardener will tell you, however, getting any flower, fruit, or vegetable to grow successfully from seed is not always this easy. Some gardeners spend early March meticulously planting seeds only to see nothing sprout up at all. In order to avoid this and ensure your success with planting seeds in your garden, it is wise to follow some basic tips for seed starting.
Yes, you can skip this “seed” step entirely and purchase seedlings from your local nursery. However, this does not give you the option to start your own seeds from vegetables that you have harvested the previous year. A garden is self-sustaining, and if you want to take advantage of this, you will need to start from seed each year- seeds that you have harvested from the previous year’s crop. Plus, when you start with your own seeds rather than seedlings you have purchased from a garden store, you are much less likely to introduce disease to your garden. You don’t really know where nursery seedlings have been or how they have been treated.
When you see the term “seed starting,” this usually refers to planting seeds indoors, in a controlled environment, and allowing them to germinate and sprout before transplanting them outdoors. This is a beneficial process for many types of home grown fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Tomatoes, for example, are best started indoors before being transplanted outside. If you see information on a seed packet indicating that the plant may be “direct sown”, this indicates that if you would like, you can plant the seeds directly outside in your garden rather than starting them inside.
In order to start seeds in your home, you will need:
– Small containers, such as Dixie cups or egg cartons
– Humus (compost that has reached its dry, crumbly finished state)
– High quality sterile seed starting soil mix
– Heirloom seeds, either those that you have purchased or those that you have saved from last year
– Plastic wrap
– A large tray or baking sheet
To begin, poke a drainage hole in the bottom of each cup, then fill each one with a mixture of 50% humus and 50% soil. Make sure that the soil is adequately damp. A good, loamy soil should clump together in your hand when you squeeze it, then fall apart when you poke it. If water drips out between your fingers when you squeeze it, the soil is too wet.
Gently press one seed into each container so it is covered with about ¼ inch of soil. Once all of your cups or egg cartons are full, place them on a tray, and lightly cover the tops with plastic wrap to help them retain moisture.
Depending on what type of seeds you are growing, they may not need any light to germinate. Tomatoes, for example, do not need light. Tomatoes are best kept in a warm, dark place. Many people prefer to place their seed trays on top of the refrigerator, as this is nice and warm, away from direct sunlight, and out of harm’s way. You can refer to your seed packets to see whether or not your seeds need light in order to germinate. Once seeds have sprouted, however, all plants need light in order to develop into strong, healthy seedlings. So if you germinate your seeds in the dark, move them to a sunny spot like a windowsill or in front of a sliding glass door once they have sprouted.
It is important to keep your seeds nice and damp, but not over-watered, during the germination process. Too much moisture may cause your seeds to rot. Every day, you can check your seeds’ moisture levels by lifting a corner of the plastic wrap and pressing a finger to the soil. If the soil is dry, lightly mist it with water from a spray bottle. Or, pour some water onto the tray, which will allow the plants to absorb water from the bottom up through the cups’ drainage holes.
When your seedlings have germinated and been moved to their sunny spot, it is very important to keep them well watered. Again, keep the soil moist but not swampy. Small pots dry out quickly, so it is likely that you will have to water them every day once they are exposed to light. It is also a good idea to fertilize them once a week with an organic liquid fertilizer that has been diluted to half strength. Plants are very delicate at this stage, so do not over fertilize them.
Once the last chance of frost has passed in your zone, you can transplant your seedlings outdoors. One week before you intend to transplant them to your garden, it is time to begin the process of hardening them off. This process means that you will be slowly and gradually exposing your seedlings to the outdoors in order to allow them to acclimate. One week before transplanting set your trays of seedlings outdoors in a semi-shaded spot for an hour. The next day, increase the exposure time to 2 hours. Each day, gradually increase the amount of time they spend outside and the amount of direct sunlight they receive. After a week, you can leave your seedlings outside overnight.
After your seedlings’ overnight campout, they will be ready to transplant into your garden. Again, make sure that you have waited until the last chance of frost has passed, and you have selected a garden spot according to the plants’ sunlight needs. This will help to ensure that you receive that particular satisfaction that comes with starting your own garden from seed.