It may be too early to start gardening outside now, but if you usually have a vegetable garden or herb garden in the summer, you can save a ton of money by starting your own seeds now instead of buying those baby plants later at big box stores. Here are the basics on how to cultivate your own seeds, as well as which plants you can start while the weather outside is still cold.
Benefits to Sowing Your Own Seeds
One of the biggest reasons to sow your own seeds is that you can guarantee everything has been organic from the get-go. You can also get a wider variety of vegetables if you order seeds, rather than rely on the few varieties you can find at major garden centers. As an added bonus, you can do more research on which varieties do better in your local area; big retail garden centers don’t have a business model based on your success. They may actually hope you’ll kill a few plants, so that you will need to come back and buy replacements. Seeds are also exponentially cheaper than buying starter packs, and because you’ll start them earlier, you will get more produce as well.
For starting seeds, you really only need three items: your choice of containers, seed-starting soil mix, and a good source of light. Oh, and the seeds, of course.
With so many options, here are a few details to keep in mind when making your choice.
Pots: Sowing into pots or single tray containers is initially more space efficient, because you can germinate more seeds in a pot and then transfer every single seedling into its own pot or plug as they develop. This is particularly true for sowing very tiny seeds, such as basil or certain flowers. However, some crops are sensitive to having their roots disturbed during their development, so we don’t recommend this method for most melons or root vegetables.
Plug Trays: These are containers with individual pockets for each seed. This minimizes the amount of times you’ll need to transfer seedlings (which is better for the plants), but it does take up more space. Two or more seeds are usually sown per plug, and then the germinated seedlings are either left to grow as a cluster or thinned out to leave only the strongest seedling in each plug.
Recycled Containers: This is our preferred method, merely because it’s the best one for the environment. You can repurpose just about anything: yogurt and sour cream cups and egg containers (bonus if you use the cardboard ones, which will be biodegradable) are the easiest options. Simply clean them thoroughly and poke a few drainage holes into the bottoms. We’ve also seen people cut a toilet paper tube in half, and then fold the ends over on one side to form a makeshift cup.
Some crops will do just fine with your standard all-purpose potting soil — beans and squash come to mind — but those with smaller seeds do better with a seed-starting soil mix. It’s typically lower in nutrients (which is fine, because seeds have their own nutrients built in) and of finer quality. If you can, buy a starting mix for your veggie garden that is peat-free, because extracting peat from its source destroys habitats and releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Usually a sunny windowsill will do just fine for seed-starting purposes, but if you’re lacking space (or direct sunlight), grow lights can replicate the process. Ones like these can be purchased from Amazon cheaply and work remarkably well. Pay attention to how you’ll place the light and where you can put it. The light should ideally be placed directly above your seedlings, because if it’s too far off to the side or too high up, your seedlings will develop thin, weak stems. A single-bulb option is fine if you’re only starting a few, but for multiple trays you’ll probably want a tube light or shop light to cover more area.
Stick to lights labeled as “balanced light spectrum.” The higher the intensity the better, so look for lights with a higher PPF (photosynthetic photon flux) or foot-candles (the amount of light received by 1 sq. ft. surface area). Generally lights range from 10-50 PPF, and higher is better for seedlings. (You can find more information on lights here.) Most people recommend keeping your lights about 4 inches above the plants as they grow.
The Best Seeds to Select
The Capital Region has a relatively short veggie garden growing season, thanks to its northern location. The danger of frost ends around May 15th, which is when most experienced gardeners begin to plant their summer crops outside. By starting a bunch of different seeds indoors now, they’ll be ready to be put in the ground in a few months’ time.
The crops you can put into the ground first are your cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. These can be started indoors the first week of March, which will get them ready to go in-ground around April 15th. (These crops are much more cold-hardy than others, hence the earlier start date.)
Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seeds can be started the first week of March as well, although they definitely need to wait until mid-May for planting outside. As for the rest of your typical summer vegetables, such as beans, peas, corn, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, and watermelons? Those seed varieties can be planted outside after the danger of frost is past, but because the Capital Region growing season is so short, you’ll have a more successful harvest by starting those seeds indoors as well, around late April. Here is a basic table for reference:
The Fun Part: Sow Your Seeds
Sowing your seeds is super easy and fun to do with little kids, if you ever have the grandchildren around in need of entertainment. You merely fill whatever container you’re using up to the top, and then tamp it down until it’s firm and level. You can’t really make it too firm, as seedlings prefer plenty of potting mix. Then, top off the container with a little more mix, and brush off the excess.
Almost all seeds will specify on their packet the depth at which they need to be sown. For most, it is fine to spread the seeds across the top of the soil and then gently press them into the mixture using your fingers or the eraser end of a pencil. Some crops, such as beets, peas, and radishes, prefer to be planted in clusters per plug or container, but larger seeds like beans are sown individually into deeper holes made with a finger or pencil.
Once you’ve sown the seeds, cover them as needed with more potting mix so they’re at the right depth. And don’t forget to label everything. You might think you’ll remember, but it’s very easy to get confused, especially early on in the germination stages. Include the variety and the date you sowed the seeds.
Water the soil evenly and gently, using a fine spray. You don’t want to flood the containers too forcefully, for fear of dislodging the seeds, and a mister will be gentle but might fail to properly saturate the potting mix, so find the middle ground. Give them a good soaking, and allow the excess to drain out the bottom.
Caring for Your Seedlings
Water the pots or trays carefully using something with a fine spray. You want to avoid letting them dry out between waterings! One way to encourage growth and the proper moisture levels is to cover your seedlings with a clear cover of some sort. You can poke holes in plastic wrap with a toothpick and drape over the trays loosely, or invest in a humidity dome or propagator lids.
It’s also important to keep your seedlings warm. We’re replicating spring, so place them in the corner of a warm room, or even on top of an appliance that gives off a little radiant warmth, such as the fridge.
Remove the humidity dome/plastic wrap once around half the seedlings have sprouted, and make sure they’re now placed under whatever light source you’re providing.
Once the seedlings have two sets of leaves — a set of seedling leaves and the first set of true or adult leaves — they are ready to be transplanted into bigger pots or containers. Don’t delay transplanting them, as overcrowding will lead to leggy plants or disease. You can use a regular potting mix at this point, to provide more nutrients for the growing plant.
Handle the seedlings by their leaves. If you crush the stem, it’ll be game over. Gently separate the seedling, and then place gently into their new container with a pre-made hole in the soil. To avoid damaging their fragile roots, transfer them with as much of the potting mix still around the roots as you can. If the seedling seems leggy, plant it a bit further down in the soil — tomato plants especially benefit from this treatment. Firm the soil gently around the stem, and water in.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably getting close to planting time. We’ll cover the process of getting your seedlings ready for the great outdoors in Part II: The Hardening Off.