Are You Ready to Start Your Garden from Seed?


Whether your New Year’s Resolution is to grow vegetables, a cutting garden, beautiful combinations for flowerpots and hanging baskets, or all of the above, now is the time to begin scheduling the seeds to be started indoors and then transplanted when the soil warms in spring. Even if you’ve never started a seed before in your life, it’s easy and fun.

First, take a look at the varieties you want to plant, and figure out which should be started indoors and which should be direct-sown into the warm spring soil. Some types of plants aren’t suited for starting indoors, such as root crops, most vines, and those with unusually large seeds. Some varieties simply prefer not to be transplanted. Here are some seeds you should sow directly into the spring soil instead of starting indoors in winter:

Amaranthus Dahlia Radish
Bean (including Scarlet Runner) Four o’Clock Spinach
Beet Kale Squash (crookneck, zucchini,pumpkin, etc)
Carrot Marigold Sunflower
Cleome Melon (including cantaloupe,honeydew, and watermelon) Swiss Chard
Corn Morning Glory Turnip
Cosmos Nasturtium Zinnia
Pea (including Sweet Peas)

Here’s how to work out your seed-starting schedule: Everything revolves around the last anticipated frost date for your area. This is a best-guess date based on years of data, and you can find it easily by googling “last spring frost date” with the name of your town.

Once you have the last frost date, look on the back of your seed packets. They will say something like, “Sow indoors 5 to 6 weeks before last frost.” Just to be on the safe side, wait until the later date to sow, or even build a “safety week” into the schedule, to accommodate late cold snaps. You don’t want to have big, healthy seedlings filling your kitchen and snow still on the ground!

Get out your calendar and, counting backwards, figure out when you want to start each type of seed you will be growing. Unless you are itching to grow the first tomato on the block, you don’t have to be very scientific about this — you can move the dates up or back as you like so that you only sow once or twice this winter. It’s just a guideline so that your seedlings will be ready to plant into the garden when the weather warms up in spring.

When you’re ready to sow, choose your method: seed flats, peat pots, or the Bio Dome. Here’s how to prepare each:

flats-for-seed-startingSeed flats: You can buy flats or make your own from old aluminum pans or plastic containers. The seed flat is a long, low container with drainage holes in the base, so you will need to put an old cookie sheet or other “saucer” beneath it to catch the runoff.

Fill the seed flat with grow mix. Potting soil also works decently, but grow mix (Fafard makes a good one) is much finer and more heavily sifted, which is helpful for tiny sprouts trying to push through the soil into the light. By the way, I say “soil,” but your mix should be soilless. Don’t use garden soil; it won’t have the blend of nutrients and aeration of a soilless mix. Seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true!

Sprinkle the grow mix until it is moist but not soggy, comb it even with a fork (gardeners have been known to use dinner forks for this purpose!), and you’re ready to sow.

With a pencil or your index finger, carve out little rows in the seed starting mix, and then carefully sprinkle the seeds along each row. Consult the seed packet: if it says the seeds need light to germinate, leave them uncovered. Otherwise, cover them with a bit of the soilless mix (not too heavily), and gently water the entire flat. You’re on your way!

peat-potsPeat pots: These are individual containers for seedlings that will biodegrade right into the garden, so at transplant time you can plant the whole pot. Often they are empty square or round pots, such as Jiffys, which you fill with seed starting mix. Or they are compressed, such as Park’s One-Steps, and expand when you add water. In any case, you simply drop a few seeds into each prepared pot.

Bio Dome: Park’s Bio Dome is an all-in-one seed starter, with a clear plastic dome with adjustable vents, a bottom tray for watering and feeding, and porous “bio-sponges,” which are little plugs that wick water up from the base, encouraging the downward growth of roots. Each bio-sponge has a pre-drilled hole into which you drop one seed. (If it misses the hole, no big deal; it will grow on the surface or even the side of the sponge!) The Bio Dome works where others fail because it offers more climate control, better aeration for roots, and a constant supply of water — you can’t over- or under-water your seedlings when the plants are wicking up moisture as they need it. It’s easier to start seeds in a cold winter room with the dome tightly fitted over the tray, and because you use only one seed per sponge, your packets go a lot farther.

Whichever method of starting seeds you use, remember to consult the seed packet for the best temperature for germination. Unless you have a seedling heat mat, you can’t regulate the temperature exactly, but that’s okay — just be sure that you start all the seeds needing warm, humid conditions in one location, and all those needing colder temperatures in another! (The top of the fridge is a good out-of-the-way place; heat rises, and the kitchen is often a bit warmer than other rooms.)

Until your seeds germinate, you don’t have to worry about the amount of light they are receiving. Once you begin to see the little green shoots, however, you’ll need to think about getting them some good full-spectrum light. Plant lights are ideal; but if you do not have them, try placing your seedlings beneath fluorescents, such as under-the-counter kitchen lights. A very bright window is good too, although winter light is weaker and shorter than at any other time of year, and you’ll want to be careful of drafts. Experiment with finding the best spot for your seedlings!

As the seedlings grow, its first pair of leaves will wither. Do not be alarmed; these weren’t really “true” leaves at all, but cotyledons or “seed leaves” — they are soon replaced by “true leaves” as the plant grows.

If you are growing seedlings in a seed flat or have sown multiple seeds in a peat pot, you will want to thin them once they have 1 or 2 sets of true leaves. The easiest way to do this is with nail scissors — just snip them near the base. If you do not thin them, the seedlings will become too crowded and will eventually choke each other out as their roots compete for space. Thin the seedlings to 1 or 2 inches apart, depending upon how big you want the seedling to get before you transplant it in spring.

The work of seed starting is now complete, and all you need do is water, feed, and admire the growing seedlings until it’s time to transplant them into the garden or flowerpots. Congratulations — you have begun your first-ever garden from seed!


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  • kristie lewis says:

    I am starting a new garden at our new place. Am very excited as this is nicer than the other one I had. I would like some raspberry bushes, the ones that produce twice a year. I had some at the other house and loved them!

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