seed starting tomatoes

Seed Starting 101

Are you planning to start a garden this year? Congratulations! It’s a big deal! Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a beginner, growing a garden is good for everybody. It feeds the soul and the soil, and can even feed your family. Organic gardens are as good for the earth as they are for its lucky inhabitants. The secret to growing a healthy, lush garden all begins with a single seed. Seed starting 101 the basics for home seed starting

Starting a garden off right with healthy seeds sets the roots for how the garden will grow the rest of the year. Sure, yeah, you can help to manage sick plants and dried out leaves, but starting seeds with good intentions and mad skills will make the rest of the year’s jobs a whole lot easier. Some of you may think I’m crazy, but I believe that how you care for the seeds will be reflected in the plant that grows, and the fruit that ripens. The garden is resting now. Perhaps even covered by a blanket of snow. Now there is ample time to slow down, plan, and nurture the very best plants to grace your garden beds.

 Seed Starting 101:  Start your own seeds this spring and revel in your gardening wizardry

“I made this!”, I gloat while serving up a dish made entirely of food that I grew in my garden. Well, “gloat” is probably not the right word. I prance around like the fantastical wizard I am, cheering about my mad skills in making real food from tiny seeds. It took me months. I had some fatalities. But overall, it’s fairly simple to grow from seeds. And more importantly, it’s awesome.  Here are some basics for starting your own seeds at home.

Choose Your Seeds
Starting seeds early in the season is a great way to save money on annuals, which are flowers, herbs, and vegetables that will flower or fruit in the first year. More advanced propagatrixes could also start perennials from seed in many cases, but it is a more difficult and time-consuming process as perennials may need many months, or even years, to reach the size of a nursery plant.

Seed companies in your area should sell the right seeds for your climate, but do make sure that you pick the right plants for your experience level. If you’re a seedling yourself when it comes to propagation, don’t bother starting watermelons in Northern Ontario. Many seed companies will also list a difficulty rating that will help to guide you.

Read the Packet
Following the instructions on the seed packet will give you the best possible start, unless the growing directions read like my radicchio, “sow seeds a few days after a moonless night”, which may as well be gibberish. The majority of seed instructions will list everything you need to start seeds, like when and where to sow, planting depth and spacing, special watering requirements and days to germination. Some will also list special information like germination temperatures, repeat sowing, transplanting, and thinning. Following the instructions gives you the best chance of success, so those map-hating, instruction-scoffing types out there best pack away your stubbornness for this project.

You can start seeds in just about anything you can find around the house that will create a mini-greenhouse, or you can buy all sorts of interesting setups to best suit your needs.

Greenhouse Kits
Many different greenhouse kits are available now. Most will have a plastic tray with a clear plastic greenhouse dome. Some come with a soilless mixture for starting seeds, like peat pellets that expand to a mini seed pot when soaked in water. Others may have coconut fiber pots that you can transplant right along with your seedling. Others may even have a heat mat that gently warms soil to improve germination.

The beauty of these kits is that you can start a large number of seeds individually in one tray (up to 72) and many are made for small spaces like windowsills. The drawback is that the seedlings will need to be replanted, either in the garden or a larger pot, in a few weeks. Leaving seedlings in small pots with no nutrition will cause unwanted stress to the plants.

Seed-Starting Trays
Garden retailers will sell many different types of professional-grade seed starting trays, domes, and inserts with features like root training, moisture control, automatic watering, and grow lights. Certainly, many of these features have value in starting the year’s plants off on the right foot and can be used over and over.

Household Items
An inexpensive and creative way to start seeds is to use household items as seed containers. Lining a seed tray with pots made from toilet paper tubes, newspaper, or egg cartons will cost nothing. At times your family may think you’ve gone mad given how excited you will become when you get to take home the plastic cake dome from the party. But come on, that’ll make a really great greenhouse dome, right? Search for biodegradable paper products you can plant right in the ground or food-safe plastic containers that you can use as mini-greenhouses for your containers if you are on a budget.

Growing Medium
You can buy a pre-made seed starter soil or you can make your own with a mix of three parts peat, two parts compost, and ten percent perlite. This mixture is light and holds moisture well, so it is wonderful for helping seeds germinate. All growing mediums will need some time to absorb water, so add moisture and let it soak in for an hour before planting.

Be sure to use a sterile mix if you are starting seeds indoors. Soil or compost from the garden will bring in all sorts of critters, like soil gnats, which will drive you freakin’ crazy as you run around your propagation trays like a mad person swatting and squashing an endless supply of teeny tiny flies.

Germination will be best in a moist environment for most seeds, so keeping the soil damp and a greenhouse dome on top will keep the right amount of humidity for optimal germination. Keep the soil from drying out by checking it daily. Water gently, from the bottom where possible, so as to not damage the seedlings about to emerge.

Dampening Off
Dampening off is a term for a fungal growth which looks like fuzzy hairs on the stem of the seedling. This fungal growth will kill the seedling so it’s bad, real bad. To prevent dampening off, occasionally spray with a bottle of 3% food-grade hydrogen peroxide and vent the greenhouse dome on a regular basis to regulate humidity.

Seeds won’t need light until they emerge from the surface of the soil, but then they will need strong sunlight for most of the day to prevent them from becoming leggy (overly tall and spindly = weak). You can supplement a lack of sunlight with florescent lighting, either buying a set of grow lights made for seed starting or by making your own with florescent shop lights.

Generally the seed instructions will suggest that you plant 2-3 seeds per pot and thin out all but the strongest. This seems to be the thing that some gardeners have the hardest time with. If three strong tomato seedlings have popped up in one tiny peat pot, then the gardener rushes off to get tweezers and separate out the three wee plants and re-pots them all. More inexperienced gardeners will damage each plant, giving none a strong chance at survival, so it’s best that you grab a clean pair of scissors and snip all but the strongest seedling in each pot and be done with it.

Hardening Off
As the seedlings grow into plants and the date to plant outside is getting near, it’s time to start hardening them off, or toughening them for their natural environment. I like to start by opening a window a few hours a day so they get a breeze. Then start moving the trays outside, out of direct sunlight, for a few hours. Start at one hour and gradually increase to a full day outside. By the time your plant date has arrived, you can safely transfer your tough little soldiers directly into the ground, with some delicious compost and a thorough watering, to brave the elements on their own.

Seed starting is such an interesting and magical process, especially for children, so it’s the perfect activity to do as a family this coming spring. The months that you’ve spent germinating and raising seedlings will be a series of trial and error, so expect some loss. Not every seed will germinate, not every seedling will survive being transplanted, and not every kind of plant will do well in your garden.

The gains will be clear when you have piles of leafy greens taking up every inch of your windowsills, bursting to get outside. Starting the plants off yourself ensures you are in charge of the health of the plant and can control what goes into it. And the satisfaction you’ll feel from starting your own seeds is tremendous.

seed starting 101

About the Author : Stephanie RoseAn artistic gardener aiming to feed the body & soul through an urban potager garden & a community veggie plot in Vancouver.View all posts by Stephanie Rose

  1. Deana
    DeanaFebruary 3,12

    I’d love for you to share this @CountryMommaCooks Link & Greet party going on now-Sunday midnight…Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Crystal
    CrystalFebruary 4,12

    I will have to try this. I think my girls would really enjoy it.

  3. Deana
    DeanaFebruary 4,12

    Thanks so much for linking up to CountryMommaCooks Link & Greet Party!
    Hope to see you next Saturday……Have a blessed week:)

  4. Melanie
    MelanieFebruary 5,12

    Super Sow Sunday sounds like so much fun. I only wish I didn’t live in zone 3. Here the beginning of February is way to early to start anything indoors, since most of it won’t be planted outside until after the last frost date at the beginning of June. And planting outside is impossible right now since the ground is under 3 feet of snow.

  5. Stevie @ Garden Therapy
    Stevie @ Garden TherapyFebruary 5,12

    Melanie, the only seeds I’m starting this early are artichoke and lettuces (to plant out in cold frames in March). So today, for all the gardeners who want to join in the fun but don’t have the climate, I’ll be doing a tutorial on making your own plantable seed paper and making valentines day cards with it! Hope you can join us.

  6. Kathy
    KathyFebruary 6,12

    My husband is doing this this year. We have a sun room where we’ve started several herbs, broccoli, and other plants all in the name of Spring. It will be fun to see how it goes. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Tommy
    TommyFebruary 6,12

    We have a seed trading group on facebook,I love the idea of this Super Sow Sunday Join us at Seed Traders!/groups/103053019817358/

  8. Heidi @ homeingreece
    Heidi @ homeingreeceFebruary 6,12

    Thank you for posting this. This will be my second year attempting to start a garden from seed. I had a really bad time of it last year and most things either didn’t germinate or didn’t develop properly. I realize after reading this that I wasn’t doing everything I could to help them along. I’ll be bookmarking this post!

  9. Honey
    HoneyFebruary 6,12

    You always have such good information to share! Thank you for sharing at Potpourri Friday!

  10. Ann
    AnnFebruary 7,12

    Great tips, absolutely doing this and soon. Also trying out straw bale gardening for the first time. Here’s to spring!

  11. Claiming Our Space
    Claiming Our SpaceFebruary 7,12

    Wasn’t Super Sow Sunday fun? I can’t wait for March to arrive so I can start my seeds. Thanks for sharing these tips.

  12. mary
    maryFebruary 8,12

    Great tutorial–maybe I’ll be brave enough to start my own this year. Thanks for linking up to Share the Love Wednesday!

  13. Aagaard Farms
    Aagaard FarmsFebruary 9,12

    Great post! I’m going to nominate you for a Versatile Blogger Award! It’s about linky-love with blogs you read! Really enjoy your stuff on Pinterest, too!

  14. brooke adkins
    brooke adkinsFebruary 12,12

    Thank you so much for linking up at Gomhp Show it off link party 11

    I choose your link to be featured stop over and check it out <3

  15. Aimee from ItsOverflowing
    Aimee from ItsOverflowingFebruary 14,12

    Awesome resource! Thanks for sharing at my party!!! Happy Valentine’s Day!!! XO, Aimee

  16. Cathy@My1929Charmer
    [email protected]February 19,12

    I’m a big seed started, and enjoyed your post very much – very informative. My fingers are crossed that you share at Sunday’s Best party tonight. Sharing information like seed starting is a good thing.

  17. Julie Tweedie
    Julie TweedieFebruary 8,14

    “sow seeds a few days after a moonless night”. I believe this means after the last frost. Not sure, but that is what my 86 yr. old father in law says. He’s a retired farmer here in Northern Maine. Crazy description though. LOL!

    I’m really enjoying your blog. Thank you for all the useful info!


  18. Bev
    BevFebruary 15,15

    I so needed this post and all the other ones you have about planting from seeds. I just bought mine a few days ago although it’s still too early to plant here in NW Michigan, but I’m ready!! I found your blog on the app bhome. Love it! Is there any way you can turn this post into a booklet or similar so that I can have it as a handy dandy guide to pick up as I plant? :) Thanks for all your wisdom, greatly appreciated! -Bev

  19. tammy
    tammyFebruary 18,15

    I currently have parsley, basil, and three types of onions (early, late, and pearl) in trays under red/blue LED lights that are arguably not quite strong enough. I found your blog during a search for grow lights, and I’m SO glad I found you! First, I love your writing style. It’s approachable and easy to understand. I can definitely relate!

    Second, thank you for the pros and cons of seedling containers – I had bought a ton of those expandable peat pots last year, as a brand new gardener, and I’m correcting my overzealous garden ways. :) I look forward to many more educational articles from your site!

  20. Play Houses,Log Houses
    Play Houses,Log HousesJanuary 21,16

    You always have such good information to share! Thank you for sharing .

  21. Wall planter
    Wall planterFebruary 21,17

    It will be fun to see how it goes. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply