You’ve never started your own vegetables or flowers indoors from seed? It’s actually pretty straightforward, especially when you choose the right seeds. After all, generations of kindergarten teachers have been showing kids how to start seeds indoors. If a 6-year old can do it, I’m pretty sure you can too!
Why Start Your Own Plants from Seed Indoors?
This is definitely a question worth asking. After all, garden centers and nurseries fill up with trays of annuals and vegetables in the spring. Why bother starting plants yourself?
Here are a few reasons.
- To Save Money: Like, lots of money. Those trays of annuals and vegetables add up: some people spend hundreds of dollars a year on them! Seedlings you grow yourself will cost, on the average, 10 times less!
- Greater Choice: There is a limit to the choice garden centers can offer… and almost no limit to the choice of plants offered by seed. Some seed catalogs offer over 200 varieties of tomatoes: no garden center can even come close.
- It’s Fun: Really, sowing seeds and watching them sprout and grow is fun to do. There’s something very exciting in starting something from nothing and having it come – in this case, often quite literally – to fruition.
- An Accomplishment You Can Be Proud Of: When you serve those tomatoes and say “I grew them myself” or present a bouquet of flowers “that I started from seed”, not only will you impress your friends and family, but you’ll impress yourself! Congratulations: it’s a real accomplishment!
Start with Easy Seeds
There are plants that are easy to grow from seed (this includes most annuals and vegetables), but also plants that are hard to grow that way (this group tends to include perennials, trees and shrubs). And there is a bit of a learning process involved. That’s why I suggest starting with varieties known to be easy to grow from seed such as the following:
Recycle to Save
If money is no object, you can find absolutely everything you need to start seeds in your local garden center: pots, trays, domes, labels, etc. But if you’re not afraid of recycling and reusing, you’ll find you have almost all the materials you need already at home.
For pots, think of the yoghurt or margarine containers (just punch a hole in the bottom with a nail to allow for drainage), cleaned pots and 6-packs from previous years, etc. Those transparent containers that vegetables, fruits and muffins come in make perfect plant trays: they even come with the matching transparent dome you need! You can make plant labels from old blinds or cut up bleach bottles or aluminium plates. The same watering can you use on your houseplants is perfect for seedlings… or use a pitcher. As for any tools you need for sowing (bowl, spoon, scissors, pencil, etc.), just highjack them from the kitchen or elsewhere in the house.
There are only two products you really do need to buy: seeds (even there you could have harvested seeds from your previous year’s flowers and vegetables) and soil. Never use soil from the garden to start seedlings: it may contain insects and diseases and will be far too heavy and compact. Commercial seed mixes are great for seedlings, but potting soil for houseplants and mixes designed for container gardening all work really well for starting seeds.
Artificial Lighting: Yes or No?
Given this is a first experience and I don’t want to you to go overboard on expenses, I suggest just growing your seedlings under natural light for this first time.
Be aware, though, that when you gain a bit more experience, a simple fluorescent lamp suspended 6 inches (15 cm) above your seedlings can do them the greatest good. When you add a timer to this kind of lamp, you gain much better control of day length and light intensity. Just set your timer to 14 to 16 hours a day and you’ll be ensuring that the plant receives a durable and equal lighting every day. Compare that to sunlight, which can be abundant some days, lacking on others… and is always weak in winter, due to the short days!
I suggest putting “fluorescent lamp for my seedlings” on your Christmas gift list. That way you’ll be ready for next year!
Know When to Sow
The most common mistake of beginner seed growers is to start their seedlings too early. The first sunny day in February and off they go, sowing tomatoes and marigolds with reckless abandon, convinced that starting them extra-early will give them a head start on the season.
Well it won’t!
That’s because plants that are too developed transplant poorly. When you plant them in the garden, they just sit there and look miserable. What you really want are young plants full of vim and vigor just ready to burst into full growth. You actually get better results if you sow your plants a bit late rather than too early!
That said, though, there is no miraculous “ideal sowing date” for all plants. It varies from one plant to another. So how can you find it?
Most seed packs include a recommended date on the back of the envelope, usually something like “xx to xx weeks before the date of the last frost”. Then you just count backwards to find out when to sow. If the info is not on the pack, it will probably be on the company’s website or in their catalogue. If that fails, look it up in a book about growing from seed.
Of course, you need to know your last frost date before you can start counting backwards. Here’s how to find the real last frost day for your locality.
Before you begin sowing, make sure you’ve gathered together all the necessary materials. They include:
- Seed packs;
- Containers (pots, recycled containers, etc.);
- Transparent dome;
- Large bowl or bucket;
- Pencil or indelible pen;
- Tools (spoon, fork, scissors);
- Watering can;
- Spray bottle.
Sowing Step by Step
- Pour sowing mix into a bowl or bucket and add lukewarm water. Stir until the soil is uniformly moist.
- Spoon the moist mix into pots, not quite filling them (you’ll want to leave a bit of empty space below the rim). Even the mix out with the back of a spoon.
- Check the seed depth on the back of seed pack, on the Internet or in a book. (If this information is not available, calculate a depth equal to three times the diameter of the seed.) With a pencil or pen, poke a hole of the corresponding depth in the potting mix.
Drop three seeds into the hole (always sow more seeds than necessary in case germination is poor).
There are almost always too many seeds in a seed pack for a single growing season. So reseal the pack and keep it cool and dry. Then you can use the rest the following year.
- Fill the hole with soil. Sometimes the seed pack states “do not cover”. This refers to very fine seed that should not be covered with soil, but needs light to germinate, for example flowering tobacco (Nicotiana). Just apply such seeds to the surface of the sowing soil without making a hole or covering them.
- Spray with lukewarm water to settle the sowing mix.
- Insert a label with the plant’s name and the date you sowed it.
- Place the pots in a waterproof tray and cover them with a transparent dome.
- Place the tray in a warm spot (about 72 to 75°F (21-24°C) with good light, but avoid direct sun at this point. (There are a few seeds that germinate best at cool temperatures or in the dark. If so, this will be indicated on the seed pack.)
- After germination (which can take from 3 days to 3 weeks or even more, depending on the plant chosen), that is, when small seedlings become visible, remove the dome. The high humidity it provided was very beneficial at the germination stage, but can be detrimental to more advanced seedlings.
- Now that the dome has been removed, move the tray to a very sunny location (in front of a south-facing window if possible) where it’s cool at night (between 60 and 65°F (15-18°C). If you can’t provide cooler temperatures, it’s not all that serious, but seedlings grown under cooler nights do tend to more dense and compact.
- If more than one seedling sprouts per pot, remove the weaker one or ones, cutting them off with scissors.
- Keep a close eye on watering, as the growing mix will now dry out quite quickly (it will go from dark brown to pale brown as it dries out). When it’s dry, pour lukewarm water into the tray and let your seedlings soak up the water they need. When the soil on the surface of the pot has turned dark brown again, that means the seedlings have enough water: empty any surplus out of the tray.
- The first leaves that appear are called cotyledons and are usually very simple in appearance. When 4 to 6 true leaves appear, begin fertilizing every second time you water, adding a soluble all-purpose fertilizer to the irrigation water at half the recommended dose.
- Give the tray a quarter turn twice a week, always in the same direction, otherwise the seedlings will lean towards the light.
- When outdoor temperatures have warmed up and there’s no longer any risk of frost, start acclimating your seedlings to outdoor conditions. Give them 2 or 3 days in the shade, 2 or 3 days in partial shade and 2 or 3 days in full sun. If the temperature suddenly drops while you’re acclimating the plants, move them to a garage or shed overnight.
- Transplant your seedlings into their final spot, either in the garden or in containers, and water well.
- Throughout the summer, water and fertilizer your plants according to the needs of the adult plant.
Have the best of luck growing your own seedlings. You’ll soon see just how easy it is!