Starting from Scratch

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A Complete Guide to Starting Seeds Indoors (and Producing Your Best Veggie Garden Yet!)

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 out into my garden 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 grow from seed. Once you
get the hang of it, you’ll never go back.

Here are the advantages:
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.

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.

And finally, growing from seed is more sustainable.

2020 brought to light a host of concerns and uncertainties—a big one was food security. As a result, more people than ever were trying their hand at home gardening for the first time. 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 who are open about their seed acquisition and development processes.

Without further ado, let’s get to the dirt of the matter:
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!

I’ve included a list of my favorites. Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with taking a trip to your local garden store, or even a big box store, and picking your seed packets right off the shelves.

Start by reading the back of a seed packet (or the description in the catalogue), which should contain 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. In Zone 7a, our last frost date averages around April 16.

Next, choose a location and gather your supplies. You’ll need plenty of space and a safe, level surface for your seedlings that won’t be bumped. You’ll also need someplace warm 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 those seed pods that come with the seed-starting trays available in garden centers. They’re cheap, easy to work with, and they do a great job of containment, at least in the beginning. The trays are also really easy to move and help with drainage. 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.

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. I use plastic spoons and a Sharpie.

Most seeds germinate best in dark environments.

They actually don’t need sunlight at this point. Set them somewhere away from direct sun, in a darkened area if possible, and keep the seeds watered, but not soaked. Make sure that water does not collect at the bottom of your seed containers or in your tray. Seeds that stay too wet can grow mold and won’t thrive. This watering approach should continue as your seedlings sprout and grow.

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.

While we’re on the subject of light, 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 your seeds off to the best start. To solve this problem, you can purchase grow lights (which can get expensive) or you can create your own, more affordable lighting by simply using a fluorescent shop light with one “warm” white bulb, 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 simply hanging some chain or wire from above. 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.

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.

Eventually, the day will come when your little seedlings are ready to be transplanted outside. Of course, the real world is much more unpredictable than the comforts of the nursery, so they’ll need to be prepared. “Hardening” is the process of preparing seedlings for the outdoor environment and is a very important part of growing from seed. 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 (which will be noted on your seed packet) 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, though not as rigorously as before.

Once your seeds are used to full sun, transplant your seedlings into your prepared garden beds by digging planting holes a bit wider than the root ball of the plant. Remove the plant from its pot, careful not to damage the roots too much.

Then, set the plant into the hole, and cover lightly with soil. Water them into their new homes, and monitor them in the days and weeks to come. Use stakes and cages to support tall growing plants as they clamber toward the sunlight and begin to produce tons of delicious fruits and veggies for you and your family to enjoy!

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