Maybe you’ve tried to grow your own vegetable starts before and had trouble, or maybe this is your first go at it. Either way, here is the plain and simple how to on growing your own beautiful and strong transplants, with lots of links to more information if that’s what you are after. 1. Use Fresh Seeds
Always start with fresh seeds. This means using seeds that are no more than 2 years old, and have been kept in a cool, dry and dark spot. If you want to be gutsy about it and use old seeds that are really special, try a germination test first to see what you are up against. If only half germinate, simply plant double the amount you’d like to have.You can often buy local seeds at Farmers Markets or at your local Seedy Saturday event. For the date of one near you check out the Seeds of Diversity page.
2. Choosing the Right Vegetables
Not all vegetables need or want to be started inside, and it always works out better if you know which are which. It’s helpful to understand that you are starting your plants inside because the vegetable doesn’t want to be outside in the cold quite yet (it is not cold hardy), but it still needs extra time to grow and so you are giving it this time, inside.
So a good rule of thumb is, heat loving plants want to be started inside, this includes a lot of herbs and flowers which tend to need a big head start as well as tomatoes, cucumber, peppers etc. Cold hardy plants generally aren’t fond of being transplanted and are happy out in the cold thus, we tend to put this straight out in the garden, often before the last frost has passed. You can check the seed starting charts below for a comprehensive list of which vegetables like to be started inside and which don’t and when.
3. Make a Schedule
Different vegetables want to be started at different times. If you start them too soon they could begin to get root bound and not transplant well. One great tool for making a schedule is to use a seed starting chart, put in the last frost date for your area, then it will plug in the dates for starting each plant.
You can make your own on paper, or use a pre-made excel sheet that does all the math for you. Here are two charts, the first is very specific, so if you like that, use this one. It will tell you the earliest and latest time to plant each vegetable both inside, and putting it out in your garden. The second chart is the same, only all the dates are an average, so if you plant within a week of this date you’ll be on track (it means fewer numbers to look at, which I find helpful).
- New or recycled trays and cell packets
- Toilet paper rolls
- New or recycled paper coffee cups
- Milk cartons (cut in 1/2)
- Newspaper cups made with a wooden pot making tool
- Peat, Cow or Coir pots (biodegradable)
- Yogurt containers
Whatever pot you decide, make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom, or add holes yourself, then set them in a plastic tray to catch the water. You can add pebbles to the bottom to ensure the plants aren’t sitting in water, which helps to prevent root rot.
If you start in a smaller container you may need to “pot up” your plants partway through the process. This simply means putting your transplant into a larger pot. This would likely be the case with the toilet paper rolls and the newspaper cups, and in some cases the plastic cell packs. If you’d like to stay on the recycled materials route, yogurt containers make great larger pots. 5. Potting Mix
Seeds and seedlings are prone to disease and need proper nutrient levels and they will appreciate it if you buy a seed starting mix from your local gardening store. These mixes are soil-less help to get your plants off to a good start. For an added boost, I like to mix in some worm compost into my mix. If you want to make your own, Gayla Trail has a great recipe.6. Planting the Seeds
Moisten your starting mix in a bucket and then fill each container with soil up to 1/4 inch from the top of the container. Put one or two seeds in each cell or pot. One rule of thumb is to plant the seed at a depth that is 3 times its thickness, but you can also read the seed packet for more specific information. If they are very fine seeds you can leave a bit of room in the top so that you can scatter a bit of seeds and then just dust the top with more starting mix. Gently pat the soil down and water with a fine mist. I like to add a bit of chamomile or nettle to the water to help prevent damping off disease. To do this boil a bit of either herb in a pot and let it cool to room temperature, then dilute it with water in your spray bottle and away you go.
Make sure you label all your trays with the variety of vegetable and when it was planted. It is also helpful to write this down on your seed starting chart, or in a journal when you planted each one as a reference for next year.8. Germination Time
Cover your trays with plastic to keep them humid during germination (this takes about one week) and keep them warm (around 20 degrees celsius). As soon as the seedlings have emerged, remove the plastic wrap. Place containers in a south or east-facing window away from radiators to save watering, as seedlings do not need to be kept as warm as germinating seeds. If you have more than one plant emerge in a small cell, clip the smaller one at soil level to allow the stronger one to grow (this can be hard, but it’s very important!).If you don’t have a warm spot to put your germinating seeds you can invest in a heat mat that will keep the soil warm during this time. They can be quite pricey, but are worth the investment if you know seed starting is for you and you have trouble with germination, but make sure you know your seeds are viable before you blame the temperature.
You may want to use lights to extend the sunshine hours of our short winter days. To do so hang fluorescent lights above your seedling in a way that they can be raised as the plants grow taller. You don’t need to buy full spectrum bulbs, as they tend to be quite a bit more expensive. There are lots of DIY instructions on the web to help you set this up. 10. Care
Keep your seedlings moist, but not soaking and not bone dry. Don’t let them sit in water. Putting a fan near them helps to increase air flow and makes their stems stronger. Try to keep them in a slightly cooler spot (around 15-18 degrees) and give them sufficent light, as this helps prevent legginess (when your plants grow tall but are floppy). Your bigger vegetable (likely tomatoes) will need to be potted up into larger containers part way through their time inside. You can also give your seedlings a bit of organic fertilizer every couple of weeks.
11. Hardening Off
Once their day to go outside is beginning to grow near its time to get those babies ready for the real world. It is important to do this slowly. Put your plants outside on a mild day, when it’s not too sunny and not too stormy. Start them off with a couple of hours in a shady and sheltered spot, then bring them back in. Gradually expose them to more sun and wind and longer trips outside. Work them up to being outside overnight over a week or so. Make sure to bring them in if it is stormy or dropping towards freezing.
That’s it. Now they are ready for the big outside. Wish them luck.
Written By: Garity Chapman