Get a Head Start: How to Grow Vegetables from Seeds

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Get a Head Start: How to Grow Vegetables from Seeds

More Variety in Flowers and More Time for Home Grown Food

Once the holidays are over, most gardeners start thinking about their gardens. This need to garden is boosted by the arrival of this season’s seed and plant catalogs, both in the mail and on the computer. Who can resist seeing what is new this year? You start to think about what did well last season and what was maybe a little disappointing. Should you grow the same variety, or should you try something new?

In addition, this may be the year you want to try starting the plants for your garden indoors rather than purchasing plants. Maybe you received a gift of the best garden supplies or even a seed starting kit over the holidays.

There are so many advantages to starting your own plants. There are many reasons to make this the year you start, including:

Control — If you grow from seed, you are in control every step of the way from the seed to the table. You decide what you plant in and how your plants are cared for. You decide if or when to add things like fertilizer. You get your plants ready for the transition to the outdoors.

Less Expensive — There is an initial cost for the indoor gardening supplies you will need but the equipment will last for years. The cost can be made up in the first season, depending on how much you grow. A tomato seed costs pennies compared to the cost of a single tomato plant.

Amounts — When you buy started plants, they come in a pack of three, four or six. Do you want that many zucchini plants? Do you want several plants of hot peppers or the same tomato? You might want three tomatoes but only one beefsteak tomato for sandwiches, one yellow tomato and one cherry tomato.

Greater Selection — There are literally entire catalogs devoted to just tomatoes. Compare that to the few varieties found in your local nursery. If you are an organic gardener, the choice of tomato plants decreases even more. Many local nurseries don’t have the space to also include heritage plants. These are the vegetables that are native to your area or climate and have been grown for generations. They have stood the test of time. Wouldn’t it be fun to try one or two?

Potential to Plant Earlier — If you have your own seedlings, you can plant as soon as conditions are right. If you also have a greenhouse or even a cold frame, you will be able to put your seedlings outdoors to harden off even earlier. Some gardeners are literally weeks earlier to harvest food by starting their own seedlings.

Food Security — This has become a significant concern for some after the food shortages and increase in prices due to Covid. Starting your own seedlings takes you one step closer to food security.

Getting Started with Your Nursery

So how do you start? Evaluate your home and decide where you will set up your indoor plant nursery. Will your plants grow on a table surface, or do you have a shelving setup that could be used? Do you have lights to grow healthy sturdy plants? A lack of light will result in spindly, weak plants that will struggle to survive in outdoor conditions, if they even make it that far.  Here are the steps to follow to start a healthy nursery, including:

1. Choose Your Seeds

The first step is to open the seed catalogs and choose what you want to grow and decide on the variety. You may already have some favorites that you are sure you want to grow. Then, add things you never grew before or a different variety of your favorite vegetables. Concentrate on the foods your family likes to eat and what variety the seed catalog says will grow best in your growing zone conditions.

2. Get Your Garden Supplies

Many seed catalogs also have a section for garden supplies. Check that out as a source of the things you will need to start your own seedlings. You can add those items to your seed order and simplify shipping. Look for seed germination setups to get your seeds off to a good start. There are other items you may need, including:

Seed Starting Mix — This material does not contain any soil but will provide the seeds the right consistency of material to allow baby-fine root hairs to penetrate. It also is going to hold moisture but not saturate the plant. You can use potting soil if you prefer, but don’t use soil from your garden. It will not drain well enough for your delicate seedlings, and you could inadvertently bring in bacteria or disease spores to your fragile seedlings.

Planting Containers — You can repurpose any container to grow in. Just make sure it has holes in the bottom to allow for good drainage. Plastic six packs and flats are a better choice, especially if you plan on starting a large number of plants. These can be reused for years if you sanitize after each use. There are also biodegradable “pellets” for starting seeds. These come dry and compressed but swell up when placed in water. Each plant grows in its own pellet and the seedling is planted into the garden while still growing in the pellet — pellet and all.

Temperature Management — Most seedlings prefer cooler temperatures when growing and the plant will be sturdier if the temperature is in the 60s. However, some seeds germinate better in warm soil. Place these seed trays on a radiator or the top of the refrigerator for the extra warmth while they germinate. You can also purchase a heating pad for plants. This is specially sealed to be waterproof and made with puncture proof fabric so there is no concern when watering or with normal use. Don’t use a heating pad meant for your body as a substitute. This is not made to be used around water and could cause an electrical short or even an electric shock. Once the seeds have germinated, return them to the cooler room.

Lights — You can use any fluorescent light for your seedlings to grow. The advantage of grow lights is that they simulate what the light of the sun has, a broad-spectrum light. The transition to the outdoors will be much easier if your plants are already used to that type of light. The lights need to be adjustable as they should be kept one to two inches above the plants as they grow. That means the lights are best if they are on chains that can be easily shortened as the plants grow.

Fertilizer — Your seedlings will need a half-strength organic fertilizer once a week after the second set of leaves develops. Organic fertilizer contains all the plants will need, including the micronutrients.

Fan (optional) — A fan set on low for a short time each day will simulate the wind outdoors. The reason you want to do this is that it encourages the plant to form a sturdy stem that can handle the wind. You can also achieve the same effect by just gently brushing your hand over the seedlings whenever you are passing by.

Timer (optional) — Make life easier for yourself with a timer that will automatically turn the lights on and off each day.

3. Sort Your Seeds

Each seed packet comes with a wealth of information on everything you need to know to grow that plant successfully. This includes how long it will take for the seed to germinate and how long before the plant will produce fruit.

Depending on your grow zone and the seed you are planting, you may need to start your seeds in January to be ready to transfer into the garden this summer. Mark your calendar with which week each seed needs to be planted. That way, you won’t miss anything.

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4. Start Planting

Moisten the planting soil before you fill the cells of the 6-pack or the pellets to expand them. The soil should be like a damp sponge. If you are using a growing kit, or flats of 6-packs, the general rule is to plant two seeds in each cell. That way, if one seed fails to germinate, you don’t have to start over. If both do germinate, wait until there are two sets of leaves and then choose the stronger of the two to continue. Simply cut the weaker plant off at soil level. That way, the roots will die and be absorbed and the remaining plant won’t have any trauma to its roots.

Cover the flat with the dome it comes with or use a plastic bag and place the plant 6-pack in it. If you have many packs, cover with something like Press and Seal. The idea is to keep the humidity high until the seeds start to germinate. As soon as you see signs of green, remove the cover. One of the greatest dangers to seedlings at this time is a disease called “damping off.” This is a fungus that is invisible to the eye but will attack the plant stem right at the soil level. A perfectly healthy-looking baby plant will be lying on top of the soil looking like it was cut off. The best way to prevent this is to keep the surface of the soil drier by removing the humidity once the seeds germinate.

5. Watering and Fertilizing

Keep the soil moist by bottom watering. When the plant seedlings are so small, it is impossible to water overhead without causing trauma to the plants. Bottom watering is the best way to safely water.

As mentioned earlier, begin fertilizing when the plants have two sets of leaves. Use half-strength liquid fertilizer. In other words, if the instruction on the fertilizer is to add one teaspoon of fertilizer to a quart of water, you will add ½ teaspoon to a quart of water. Again, bottom water the plants with the fertilizer water once a week.

6. Manage the Light

Lower the lights so that they are one to two inches above the seedlings. Keep that distance throughout their indoor life. As the plants grow, raise the lights so the plants don’t touch the lights.

7. Manage the Air Flow

Run a fan set at low so that the plants are in a soft breeze. If that isn’t possible, run your hand gently over the tops of the plants. Be gentle — you only want a little movement a couple of times a day minimum. This will help your plants to prepare for outside conditions.

Transitioning Your Plants Outdoors

When it is close to the last frost date for your growing zone, you can begin to harden off your plants. This is the process of transitioning your plants from growing indoors under optimum conditions to outside with unpredictable conditions. Start with the plants that are cool weather plants. These include peas, lettuce, spinach and brassicas like kale, cabbage and broccoli.

If you have a cold frame, utilize it for this process. A cold frame functions like a mini greenhouse. The cold frame can be opened during the day when the sun is shining and the temperature is high. Close the cold frame at night to protect the plants from near-freezing temperatures. If you don’t have a cold frame, take your plants outside during the day. Start with the plants in a sheltered area with shade. Keep them outside for just a couple of hours and gradually increase the amount of time they are outside. Also, increase the amount of time they are exposed to full sunlight, as well as wind and rain.

After a week or two, your plants should be able to be outdoors for the entire day as long as there is no late frost predicted. Once your plants are hardened off and the garden soil is ready, you can transplant your seedlings to the garden.

The last plants that should go outside are the most cold-sensitive plants like tomatoes. They will be killed off if there is a sudden frost or freeze. Cold temperatures may not kill the plants, but it will stunt their growth.

While it is tempting to try to have the first ripe tomato of the summer, be prepared to cover your plants to protect them from an unusually late frost. The weather patterns are not very predictable so being prepared for change is the best policy.

Starting plants for your garden indoors rather than purchasing plants has many advantages and can be quite rewarding both financially and in getting an early start on your growing season.  You can do it!

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