Spring is here; the world around us is transforming, plants and animals are waking, and I’m in complete awe of my yard, as it invites change on the daily. My partner and I bought our first home this past fall, so our yard experience thus far has consisted of raking masses of leaves and watching all of the plants go dormant. This year, things will be different. And if we want to achieve all of our dreams for the space, we will have to be thrifty a.f. with our gardening.
Whether it’s a bomb vegetable garden you’re after or a quaint flower box, going to a local garden center will get expensive fast. We’ve got big plans for our yard, so our options were to scale back on the garden of our dreams OR! start our own plants from seed. Option two it is! Seed starting is a necessity for healthy harvests where we live (the good ol’ Midwest). If you want to practice your green thumb, join me in my thrifty journey; you’ll find so much satisfaction and serenity from nurturing your own plants from seed. Now all you’ll need are some supplies, a bit of introductory knowledge, and a foolproof step by step process. Thankfully, you can find all of that below!
At my local home improvement stores, the seed displays were set up as early as February. This has had me incredibly antsy to start stocking up on all of the required supplies. But it’s not to late to get started. Here’s what you’ll need:
Seed Starting Mixture (Soil)
Blank Plant Tags
Heat Pad (Optional)
Seeds of Knowledge \
Gardening can seem like a huge undertaking. There are many things you need to take into account to find success. Below, I’ve gathered the most important tips.
When picking seeds, know your hardiness zone. Defined by the annual extreme minimum temperature, your unique hardiness zone will tell you which plants will survive in your climate area. This is especially important if you are germinating perennials (plants that survive the cold winter and come back in the spring). Seed packets should display all this good information. If you’re shopping locally, you can be fairly confident the seeds provided will thrive in your climate. However, if you are shopping online, make sure to pay close attention to hardiness zones when selecting seeds.
With containers, you have a choice. One is the plastic route with the intent of washing and reusing the containers indefinitely. The other route is even more sustainable: either using pre-made compostable containers or making your own out of old newspaper and a Paper Pot Maker. Regardless of container material, you’ll also want to find a tray with small individual planting spots. That way, if certain plants do eventually grow too large, they can be potted on to larger containers. But let’s stop here, before we get ahead of ourselves.
The dirt on seed starting mixtures
Pick up a commercial seed-starting mix for soil. This mix will be very porous and sterile, a perfect environment for starting off your seeds.
Natural light or artificial light? That is the question.
Germinating seeds initially requires no sunlight because a seed will get all required nutrition from within the seed itself. The key elements needed at this early stage are moisture and consistent warmth. For this reason, it is not advised that you grow seedlings in window sills, since it is the warmest place in the home during the day and the coolest at night.
If you opt for artificial lighting, it’s fairly inexpensive. One 4 foot long light with two fluorescent bulbs costs around $20 bucks. You don’t need to get special grow light bulbs, use cool white fluorescent bulbs. This is the ideal solution if you plan to grow many plants. We set up our seed germinating area in the unfinished side of our basement where the temperature is consistent and we can have grow lights on, without disturbing our main living spaces. The lights hang from existing shelves, so we can adjust as the plants grow taller. A good rule of thumb: you want your light source to be around 4 inches above the highest plant.
When to plant?
If you planted your tomato seeds in the ground after the first frost this spring, they wouldn’t reach maturity in time for harvest in fall. This is why we start seeds indoors: so, we can extend the growing season and have better harvests. Look on the back of your seed packets for specific information about when to sow your seeds and when to plant, each plant is different. Therefore, you should be sewing seeds throughout early spring. It’s best to keep track on a calendar when you are sewing and when you are hardening off the seeds to plant outdoors to keep everything on track… more on that later.
The Process \
1 Sow the Seeds
Now let’s get our hands dirty! Fill your chosen containers full of your seed starting medium, aka dirt. Water lightly till the soil is moist. If soil levels drop from watering, add more soil and water again. Plant seeds 4 times as deep as the seed is wide. So, the larger the seed, the deeper it should go. Use your finger to make a hole in the dirt and place individual seeds into holes. Backfill, being sure not to compact the soil too much. Mark the containers with tags! You’ll want to know what is what.
2 From Seed to Sprout
In the beginning, like mentioned, plants will need moisture and consistent warmth to germinate. Keep soil moist with a spray bottle. You can even cover soil with plastic domes or sheets to ensure moisture is kept in the soil. Once leaves form on the plant, light and fertilizer will be needed for continued and strong growth. Connect your lights to a timer and set it to shine light on your plant children for 12 to 16 hours a day. You will also want to start fertilizing once a week with a general purpose fertilizer mixed with 4 parts water. This will be in addition to regular watering.
3 Growth Spurts
If your seedlings outgrow their small containers (before being able to be transplanted into your garden), pot the plants into larger containers. These larger pots will require more space and a taller light source. Plan accordingly.
4 Harden-off Seedlings
For the beginner-seed-starter, this is probably the most daunting step. Hardening-off your plants is done to make them accustomed to the harsh sun, wind, and changing temperatures of the real outdoors, after living indoors. The simplest way to do this is to start bringing your plants outside two weeks before you plan to plant them outdoors. Bring them out for a few hours in the shade during a warm afternoon and then bring them back inside before nightfall. Leave them out for longer periods of time each day and keep exposing them to more direct sunlight. Once you hit two weeks, your plants should be happy to live outside in the sun as they wait to be planted!
5 Plant Your Garden
Planting your garden will be as complex as you make it. I’m not going to dive into the nitty gritty details, since that would be another article in itself! However, I will leave you with some pointers. As a jumping off point, consider how you want to set up your garden: traditional tilled garden, raised beds, potted garden etc. Once you’ve made that decision, select where to plant your garden. Make sure you are considering the factors that will directly affect your garden: quality of light, soil composition, drainage, size, and even protection from critters! Do your research and make educated decisions, but remember that gardening (like most things) will have some trial and error.
Stay tuned for Volume 4 for more information about fleshing out your garden plan! But in the mean time…check out our hidden gems where I give a shout out to my fave gardener Monty Don who can give you even more garden inspiration.