Starting Your Own Plants from Seed
There are many advantages to starting your own plants from seed. First of all, it is so much cheaper to buy the supplies for seed starting than to buy transplants, especially if you need a lot of them. Secondly, you can get unique varieties of both flowers and vegetables that your local nursery just isn't able to carry. Thirdly, and, I think, most importantly, when you start your own plants from seed, you become intimately involved in the growth of those plants. You learn to pay attention and attend to their needs. This, in turn, makes you a better gardener all around. Besides, it's fun.
You will need some equipment for seed starting, especially if you are planning to do it on a large scale. Firstly, you will need a seed starting station. See our article on how to do this. Besides the equipment for the seed starting station, you will need containers to plant your seeds in. There are a variety of options. First of all, there are plastic cell packs. These are what you usually buy transplants in. They're great because they retain soil moisture fairly well, they fit into plastic flats that you can buy (these usually have clear plastic lids to help retain moisture. I recommend getting several.) and they are reusable. Then, there is peat. You can buy both individual small peat pots and peat cell packs. These are perfect for starting seeds of plants that hate having their roots disturbed, such as sunflowers. You plant the entire thing, pot and all, into the ground at planting time. I have found that these tend to dry out a bit faster than plastic, but it's not a big deal if you keep a close eye on your plants. Thirdly, there are peat pellets. These are made of compressed peat moss enclosed in a biodegradable mesh. When you put them in water, they expand, and you simply drop the seed in and plant the entire thing. These are also great for plants that don't like having their roots disturbed.
You will need a plaiting medium. For starting seed, buy the soil less seed starting mix you find in any area nursery. This is sterile and not too heavy, perfect for getting seed off to a good start. The best seed starting mixes are those that are made with sphagnum peat and either perlite or vermiculite. This will be sterile and stay loose even after weeks in a cell pack.
You will need seed, of course. The only thing here is to buy seed that was packaged for the current year. You will find this information printed right on the seed packet. If you buy seed packaged for previous years, you have no idea whether it will germinate or not. Germination rates are dependent on how the seed was stored, and most likely, stores haven't bothered to give older seed the right conditions. You can save your seeds from year to year, though. Brands don't matter, age does. Just be sure to save your seed packets, because they have a wealth of information on them.
There are some incidental items you will need, too. Plastic or wooden plant labels, a mister for watering seeds in, a tray or dishpan for bottom watering, and fertilizer. I prefer fish emulsion for fertilizing seedlings. If you are starting plants that get big, such as tomatoes or zucchinis, you will need four or six inch plastic or clay pots to transplant them into.
Planting the Seeds
- Put your seed starting mix into a large bucket and add water until the mix is evenly moist but not soaking wet. It should hold together in a ball when you squish it together, but break apart easily.
- Fill your cell packs to the top with the mix. Use an identical cell pack or pot to gently tamp the mix down to get rid of any air pockets.
- Plant the seeds. Check the seed packet for information on how deeply to plant the seeds. Plant two or three seeds per cell. You can thin all but the strongest ones out later.
- Water the planted pots, either from above with a mister or from below by setting the pots in a tray of shallow water. When the surface of the mix looks wet, it's been watered perfectly.
- Label your seeds with variety name and date planted.
- Cover flats with either clear plastic domes, bags, or plastic wrap to create a greenhouse environment for the seeds.
- Place under lights in seed starting station or in a bright window. If you have a seed starting station, lower the lights to about three or four inches above the top of the pots.
- Keep seeds moist. Once they germinate, remove the plastic covers.
- After they get their first set of true leaves (these come after the initial two leaves that appear, which are called cotyledons) fertilize them with a diluted fertilizer, 1/2 of the recommended strength.
- To keep them growing, keep moving the lights up as the plants grow, fertilize them weekly and don't let them dry out.
- If you need to transplant seedlings into bigger pots, simply pull them out of the cell pack by holding a true leaf and gently digging the plant up with either a plant label or the tip of a pencil, keeping a bit of soil attached to the roots so you don't disturb them too much. Place it in the new pot at the same depth as it was originally (unless you're growing tomatoes-plant them deeper so the plants will be stockier.)
- Harden off when the time is right, and get planting.
Seed starting is a fun process, and gives you some time with plants and dirt in the winter. Once you start, I guarantee you'll be addicted. ITGO