Starting your own plants from seed is one of the best ways to save money when gardening. It is also, in my opinion, far more fun than buying pre grown plants. There is something extremely satisfying about nurturing a tiny plant into a big strong one throughout the season. You will hear sometimes about people talking to their plants, and honestly if you grow them from seed it becomes oddly difficult not to! They’re your little, seasonal children.
Growing from seed is also the best way to ensure the health and well being of your little plants. Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to go to local markets or plant exchanges and grab a few seedlings. Sometimes though, you can pick up other little things along with plants like bugs or fungus. You also don’t know for sure what kinds of plant foods or fertilizers were used. So it’s best, if you worry about those kinds of things, to plant your own.
Choosing your seeds
If you are a first time seed starter, it’s all too easy to get over zealous about your seed choices which can quickly overwhelm and sometimes disappoint you. Try your best to choose seeds that are simple to grow and are suited to your area. Most seed packets will come with planting instructions and Zone that they will grow best in. These zones vary from country to country so look up yours before you get started. For Canadian gardeners, Gardenia has some really good maps of garden zones.
Once you know your zone, it’s a good idea to look up your Last Frost Date. These are also easy enough to find through Google, and will change based on where you live. Knowing those two pieces of information will make your seed choices less endless, and can help you find things that will thrive and give you the best results.
When To Start
Living in Canada means I get tired of the non gardening season pretty fast, but am forced to wait quite a long time before it returns. This means, I have a tendency to start seeds a little early. This isn’t the end of the world if you can keep potting up and providing lots of light for your little friends. If you don’t have the space or adequate light then things get a bit lanky and spindly.
Seeds purchased from local growers are a great way to be sure that the plants will grow in your area, and most, if not all, will come with a timeline for when they should be planted indoors or outdoors. There are certain things like peas, garlic, potato and onion sets that prefer to be planted directly into the soil, and others that are happier to be planted in safe little pots inside at first.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to read the instructions on your seed packets if you are a beginner. It might seem easy enough to just throw seeds into a pot, but you will be sad if your wee plant doesn’t grow, so take the extra second and read those instructions!
Where to Plant
At our house we have a few friendly cats who love to share in our activities and try to help. If you are familiar with cats you know that this is usually the polar opposite of helpful. Our kitties enjoy digging in dirt and eating small plants. Two things I am not fond of. To prevent this we have set up a couple small pop up greenhouses in our living and dining rooms. This way the cats can’t access the baby plants.
What you need to have in a seed starting area is accessibility, stable warm temperatures (not hot, just not freezing) and lots of light. If you are fortunate enough to have a large south facing window, or better yet a south facing sunroom than that is your best choice. Position a table in front of the window and you’re ready to go!
If you’ll be using a lighting system like we do, you have a few options of lights. The simplest way to get the correct light for your new little plants is to buy tube fluorescent shop lights, and hang them above your seed trays. These are widely available at hardware stores, and easy for beginners to set up. Another easy (although slightly more expensive) choice is to purchase grow light setups. These will use multiple colours of LEDs to create the correct spectrum of light. You can buy them online, or at garden centers. The ones for sale at garden centers sometimes come as full kits with seed trays and all!
For our setup, Mike purchased rolls of different coloured LEDs that are moisture resistent and have sticky backs. He then stuck them to sheets of corruplast (corrugated plastic. You can use anything that won’t be bothered by humidity), and wired them together to be powered by an old computer power supply. The whole system is plugged into a wall timer so that the lights turn on for 14hrs a day, without us needing to fuss with them. (Stay tuned for a more detailed post about how to do all of that!)
There are a lot of options for what to put your seeds into. More and more these days I’ve been seeing some great little kits for seed starting (and I’m actually using one this year!) These kits come with multicell trays that fit into a larger water table tray and they have a clear plastic dome top to keep moisture in and still let the light through. They usually can plant up to 72 cells!
Those are cool and handy, but you don’t need to use anything fancy for seed starting. You can use many things from around your house like egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, or plastic berry containers. I am also a huge fan of re-using old pots from years past.
If your egg cartons and toilet paper rolls are untreated, you can actually plant your seedlings out into the garden directly in those and they’ll biodegrade, meaning less fussing at planting time. Peat pots, and Coco Fiber pots from garden centers are also great for this!
Soil choices for seed starting are very straight forward. Every garden center will have some brand of seed starting mix. I have never encountered one that didn’t work for me, so go nuts and choose what looks good to you. If you aren’t feeling like buying a pre-mixed bag, then you can make your own mix by combining two parts peat moss and three parts compost with ten percent vermiculite. That will give you a great balance of water retention and drainage, plus loads of nutrients.
Keeping your tiny plants well watered is important. They don’t need to be flooded but they’re growing a lot during this time so consistent water is key. Because the plant will be tiny and delicate, it’s best to water from below if possible. That way you won’t disturb the plant or move around the seeds.
If you are using seedling cells, thoroughly water the soil before planting the seed, then place the cells into a tray. The holes in the bottom of the cells will allow you to water into the tray. The soil will suck the water up through the holes. This works for most little pots, TP rolls, egg cartons, and even for plastic berry containers (since most of those have holes in the bottom). If you are really at a loss than misting with a spray bottle works well as a second option.
Soon you will have little plants coming up! Once your extreme excitement has calmed slightly, it will soon be time to “thin” your seedlings. Most seed packets will instruct you to plant more than one seed in each hole. This is to make sure you get good germination and growth. If one little plant fails, don’t worry you have a couple more in that pot that will grow nicely. Inevitably though you will have two or three little sprouts popping up in each pot. This is fine at first, but eventually the plants will start competing hard for light, space and nutrients.
Wait until you have a few sets of good leaves on at least one of your seedlings. Then with a clean pair of scissors, snip away all but the strongest plant in each pot. That way you will give that one the best chance to grow big and strong.
As you get close to your planting date, (based on your frost dates and outside temps) you will need to start getting your little plants ready to face the elements alone. If you put them straight from the safety of your house into the garden they won’t be strong enough to deal with the elements.
You need to ease them into these new elements. This usually takes a couple weeks. Start by opening windows to allow them to begin experiencing cooler temperatures. After a day or two, move them into a slightly shaded area outside for a few hours a day. Gradually leave them out for longer, with increasing amounts of sunlight and contact with breezes.
You’ll notice your plants growing thicker stems and broader leaves. This means they are becoming comfortable in their new outside life. Finally when their planting date arrives, they’ll be ready to face the season out in the open garden!
Seed starting is one the times of year that I get wildly enthusiastic about the coming season. I get pretty stir crazy through the winter. To finally get my hands into soil and watch my little green friends come alive brings happiness to my soul. If you are new to gardening I hope you try your hand at starting a few seeds on your own. I promise you will have lots of fun. When your first little seed pops up its stem, I guarantee you will smile!