Seed starting isn’t hard, can be done any time of year, and it can give you the jump on getting any annuals you’re going to be planting more of a chance, if it’s still too cold outside. It’s also way cheaper to start seeds than buying started plants from the nursery.
Permaculture purists may scoff at planting annuals, but that’s just ridiculous. Even nature grows annuals! The vegetables most people eat are annuals, at least for most of North America. Funny enough, peppers (chilis) are a perennial in their native climate, but they can’t overwinter in temperate climates due to the cold.
Sidenote: For a cool fall (ha, punny!) project, dig up a pepper plant, put in in a large gardening pot, and bring it in for the winter. Keep it alive inside, then re-plant it when it’s warm enough. It will explode with peppers WAY earlier since it doesn’t have to grow a root system first. Let me know if you try it!
So you need a few items to get started. You’ll need a planting medium (starting mix or potting soil), a container, and some seeds. With all of these materials, you’ve got some choices. You can buy all of this stuff from a nursery, or gardening or home improvement store. Or you can use whatever’s at hand. This could include pint milk cartons, egg crates, or other containers with small separate compartments. I just buy standard nursery tray sized coir fiber insert strips each year. Note: these refills seem to be hard to find at a decent price. It’s bought them for $7 before from Amazon, but now they’re $12.
Sidenote: For an easy and cheap DIY potting mix, combine equal parts sand, vermiculite, and coco fiber (or peat moss as a second choice). I mix mine up in a wheelbarrow, but you can use a bucket or even a tarp. You can also add compost, worm castings and/or organic slow-release fertilizer which will help the plants grow, but it’s not required. This is much less expensive than buying, if budget is a concern. You could also add good garden soil, but make sure to sterilize it to prevent weed and disease problems. This is how I make my seed starting and potting mix.
There is also the option of doing something like a Soil Cube. I have grown plants this way and it works really well. It has several benefits: saves on having to buy nursery tray inserts, automatic air pruning, better transplant success. See my terribly bad video review on it. Nice overalls, though right?
Fill me up, Scotty!
If you’re not going the soil cube route, it’s pretty straightforward. Fill your containers about 3/4 of the way up with your potting soil. Lightly press the soil and make a small depression for the seed. A good rule of thumb for planting depth is 2-3 times the diameter of the seed. So, a squash or pumpkin is going to be planted a lot deeper than a basil, lettuce, or broccoli seed.
Some people in the permaculture world will say that you have to use organic seeds. But to me, this is less of an issue than just using open-pollinated varieties. There’s lots of arguing on the subject of organic vs. non-organic and hybrid vs. open-pollinated, and heirloom seeds. I choose not to use GMO seeds or hybrid seeds, because I want to save and replant seeds. You never know what you’re going to get when saving hybrid seeds. So I don’t do it.
Seeds are relatively cheap, and I like to ensure a plant growing in every cell. So what I do is put two or three in each hole. Then cover the seed and lightly press the soil down. Don’t pack it too hard.
One very interesting technique I first saw demonstrated by Curtis Stone of Kelowna, B.C. Canada. He’s an urban farmer doing some very cool farming experiments, while sustaining his family and providing jobs to several employees. He uses a 1″ paving brick to provide weight on top of the seed bed. This results in better germination, which means more profitable for Curtis. Check it out here.
Water water everywhere…
Now the seeds need to be watered. But don’t water with a watering can from overhead, or you might wash away the seeds you just planted.
This is where using a nursery tray with propagation insert or coconut coir fiber cells is really handy. You need to either mist lightly from above until good and wet, or put water into your tray so it wicks up from underneath. I will remove one of the strips, add water to the tray itself, then replace that strip.
You don’t want it sopping wet, but it must be wet enough. I know that doesn’t really help, but try to make it like a wrung out sponge, or slightly wetter.
Tip: Make sure if you’re putting it outside, that it’s protected from critters. I’ve had cats dig in trays and try to use it as a latrine, and mice/chipmunks dig out and eat all the squash seeds in a tray. But at least they left the shells behind. Grrrrrrr…
Grow my lovelies, grow!
Now you’re trying to simulate spring to the seeds to trick them into germinating and growing. So put them in a warm place that encourages germination. You’ll want it a little above room temperature, though all seeds germinate at different soil temperatures, and have different light requirements.Check the back of the seed packet for more detailed info on germination.
Tomatoes and peppers want the soil toasty (80-85F) so you may need to get some seed heating mats if you don’t have some place warm enough. Light isn’t usually required at this point, so don’t worry if your warming location is dark.
I used to put mine on top of the refrigerator, but now I put them in my greenhouse. For the first few days you should put a plastic or other waterproof cover over the planted container to retain moisture. Some seed starting “mini-greenhouse” kits come with a plastic cover that fits right on the lower tray. I’ve used these before with good success.
Depending on the seed, it may take just a few days or 10 days or more to see the seeds sprout above the soil. Once they do, they must have good direct sunlight for several hours a day. If they do not, they will grow tall, weak and spindly, and be susceptible to diseases.
Sidenote: I did see a neat project involving big light bulbs and a piece of round vent ducting for indoor plant lighting on YouTube last year but I can’t find the link now. Try to get light bulbs that are close to natural sunlight, if you can. It will also help the winter blues (aka S.A.D.), if you have that problem. You also should remove the cover after the seeds have sprouted.
One thing to watch out for is a fungal disease called damping off. It’s a common greenhouse disease that happens when there is too much moisture and not enough airflow. So put a small fan up to blow gently across the starts. In the spirit of permaculture, it will do multiple things: lower the chance or damping off and increase the strength of the starts. It’s a trick that greenhouses growers use to get strong plants.
There are also two remedies that seem to work to varying degrees. One is cinnamon, because fungi don’t like it.
The other is…
…chamomile tea. Use bulk chamomile flowers (get them at the health food store or online) and add hot water to make a tea. You can dilute it and use it as your water source for the starts. This is what I do every year.
Jack Frost is a big jerk!
So now you’ve got growing starts. Check your county’s state extension office to find out when your average last frost date is. Keep in mind that it’s an AVERAGE. With me, Jack Frost seems to love to visit one last time to kill my new plants, just to let me know he’s in charge. So be cautious when planting. It’s way less frustrating to wait a week than to put them out early and watch them frost-killed.
Instead of sticking them straight into the garden, they need to be hardened off. This involves exposing the plants to steadily more time outdoors daily to acclimate them to harsher conditions. Most gardening books suggest a two-week adjustment period, but even a week is beneficial.
Sadly, I’m really bad about this. I usually leave them exposed too early for too long or get impatient and put them in ground too soon, or both. The problem is if you don’t harden them off, the plants get stressed/shocked and die or take a long time to recover, if they ever do.
Once they’re hardened off they can go in the ground. I used to add some form of B-vitamin when I transplant, to help with transplant shock. I usually used the “root stimulator” stuff from fertilome, but then I found this article from ASU, refuting B1 root stimulator products. So now I just use a little worm tea or Garret Juice.
After that, just figure out how to encourage growth, keep pests in check, make fruit set, prevent diseases and avoid watering every day. It sounds like a lot of work, but you can make a routine and use different techniques to save time and effort.
Get some seeds, potting soil, and containers, and do it! It’s easy, and when you have that first ripe tomato straight from the garden, nothing from the grocery store can even come close.
For a good seed source, I really like (affiliate link) Botannical Interests. They have great quality seeds, and really neat artwork on the covers, as well as lots of good info on the inside of the packets. I buy seeds from them every year, usually more than I can plant! If you’re planting a large area they do have larger packet sizes. I like the larger sizes for lettuce, snow peas and buckwheat, so I don’t have to open so many packets.
Do you have any seed starting tips to share? Or if you have any questions about starting seeds, planting, or gardening, please comment down below and let’s talk!
P.S: If you liked this post, please consider signing up for our email list (in the sidebar), and you’ll get a notification whenever we publish a new post.
The Crew at TPL