By Ashleigh Meyer
The most difficult time of year for me as a gardener is the window between winter and spring, when the planting season is tantalizingly close, but the ground is still too frozen, and the last frost of the season has not yet come and gone. That’s when I’m itching to get outside and get my hands into that dark soil. But I can’t. Not yet.
Conveniently, right around the time that I start to get worked up into a gardening frenzy, it’s time to start seeds indoors. A lot of folks believe that growing from seed is too challenging and not worth the effort. However, with a little knowledge, anyone can do it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never go back. Here are a few advantages:
Seeds Save Green
Starting from seed is more cost-effective than purchasing transplants from garden stores. A seed packet contains dozens (even hundreds) of seeds, each one a potential plant. And in the right conditions they can be stored for years. This means that your single $1-$5 purchase can produce a bounty of vegetables over multiple growing seasons.
Viva the Variety
When it comes to live plants, most garden stores only stock a small variety. You’ll find regional staples: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini. But there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of interesting and unique varieties of veggies to try when you buy seeds instead.
In 2020, the issue of food insecurity was front and center. As a result, more people than ever were trying their hand at home gardening. The ability to grow your own food is an essential skill. But knowing how to grow from seed is the bedrock of sustainable food. Also, when you grow from seed you can purchase from ethical companies.
The Dirt of the Matter
How to Start a Garden from Seed
Select Your Seeds with Care
First, you’ll need some seeds. Seed shopping is one of my favorite activities. I adore seed catalogues. I have a dictionary-thick stack on my coffee table. The best part? They’re usually free! Of course, you can also take a trip to your favorite local garden store like Jack Frost Landscapes & Garden Center or Anderson’s Garden Center to pick up your seed packets.
Start by reading the seed packet or catalogue description, which should have everything you need to know. It will help you figure out when to start your seeds, which is very important. On average, most crops can be started indoors about six weeks before the last frost. Keep in mind that most of Coastal Virginia is now considered planting zone 8a, but in some inland areas, it is 7a.
Choose a Location and Gather Supplies
You’ll need plenty of space and a safe, level surface for your seedlings that won’t be bumped. You’ll also need a warm spot once the seeds have germinated. Supplies include seed-starting mix, something to plant the seeds in, labels for identification and plenty of light and water.
Seed-starting mix is actually not “dirt” in the strictest sense of the word. It usually doesn’t contain any actual soil, but instead is loaded with compost, peat and other things that hungry young plants need to thrive. You can purchase it at a local garden store or make it yourself.
I personally like seed pods that come with the seed-starting trays. They’re cheap, easy to use, and do a great job of containment, at least in the beginning. But you can use anything such as plastic cups or yogurt containers. But make sure to poke plenty of holes in the bottom of whatever you use.
Plant and Pay Close Attention
Now, it’s time to plant. In each seed pod or container, open a hole in the soil to the appropriate seed depth and drop in a seed. You may choose to plant a couple of seeds in the same container and thin them out once they start to grow. Cover the seeds lightly with the dirt, and water gently. Make sure to label your plantings.
Most seeds germinate best in dark environments. They actually don’t need sunlight at this point. Set them somewhere away from direct sun and keep the seeds watered but not soaked. Make sure that water does not collect at the bottom of your containers or tray. Seeds that stay too wet can grow mold.
Check on them daily. Once you see little green sprouts, it’s time for a change of scenery because now they’ll need a nice bright location. Of course, access to sunlight is ideal, although extremely warm temperatures are not required. Average temperatures of between 55 and 70 seem to be perfect.
Shed Some Light on the Subject
Everyone knows that light is vital to plant growth. This is especially true for seedlings. While a sunny, temperature-controlled area may work to produce healthy seedlings, the reality is you probably don’t have enough natural light to get them off to the best start. To solve this problem, you can purchase grow lights or you can create your own more affordable lighting using a fluorescent shop light with one warm and one cool white bulb.
You’ll want to suspend your lights about three inches from the tops of the plants. You can do this by purchasing an adjustable fluorescent light stand or by suspending them with chain or wire. Move the lights upward as the plants grow but keep them close so that the seedlings can soak up all the energy they need. Ideally, the lights should be on for at least 16 hours a day.
Fertilize, But Not Too Much
As your plants grow, they will need more nutrients. The first set of leaves that appear are called cotyledons and are not considered “true leaves” because they’re actually a part of the seed or embryo. They’re typically very simple-looking. Soon, however, your plants will start to develop true leaves, which look a bit more crinkled and unique.
Once the second set of true leaves form on your plants, it’s time to give them a boost. Use a liquid vegetable fertilizer, but mix it to half-strength. Water your seedlings with it about twice a week. This is also the time when you will want to thin your seedlings to one plant per pot. Choose the one that looks the healthiest and carefully pluck the other. As they grow, you may need to move them into larger containers.
Get Ready to Grow Outside
Eventually, the day will come when your little seedlings are ready to be transplanted. Of course, the outside world is much more unpredictable than the comforts of the nursery, so they’ll need to be prepared. “Hardening” is the all-important process of preparing seedlings for the outdoor environment. In fact, if this step is skipped or not done properly, all of your hard work could be lost.
About two or three weeks before your transplant date, begin to set the seedlings outside on calm weather days. Place them in a shady location and bring them back inside in the evenings. Don’t allow them to be subjected to wind, extreme temperatures or direct sun. Each day, expose them to just a bit more sunlight and continue to water moderately.
Once your seedlings are used to full sun, transplant into your prepared garden beds by digging holes a bit wider than the root ball. Remove the plant from its pot, careful not to damage the roots. Set the plant into the hole and cover lightly with soil. Water them into their new homes and monitor in the days and weeks ahead. Use stakes and cages to support tall plants as they grow.