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Starting Seeds for Beginners

Seed Starting For Beginners


Topics

  • Garden planning

  • When to start seeds

  • Basic equipment

  • Soil mix

  • Seed germination

  • Caring for seedlings

  • Transplanting plant starts

  • Companion planting


Garden Planning


Before starting seeds, you need a plan. When planning a garden, you need to ask yourself, "what will I grow, where will I grow, how much will I grow, and when should I grow?"


What should you grow? That depends on what you like. If you're wanting to grow produce, you should only grow fruits & veggies you'll actually eat. Okra is fast growing and produces an abundance, but that's a problem if you won't do anything with it. You also need to consider your growing zone. For example, you won't have much luck if you want to grow jalapeños in zone 1. Even zones 2-4 may have problems due to their need of 5-6 months of full sun. We'll touch on some companion plants later on that you should consider growing that will benefit the produce you choose for your home garden.

When planning your garden, you need to select a location that gets at least 6 hours of full sun. That doesn't necessarily mean 8 continuous hours each day. You could have 3 hours of morning sun, shade in the afternoon, and 3 hours in the early evening. Choosing an area that has access to south-facing sun in the northern hemisphere or north-facing sun in the southern hemisphere will be best. Having in-ground soil beds, raised beds, containers, or hydroponics make no difference when picking the location unless you're supplementing with grow lights.


Deciding how much to grow can be difficult for beginners, as it is easy to under or over estimate your yields if you're unfamiliar with vegetable gardening. When choosing your seeds, try to research what each plant will produce. For example, one beet seed is actually a cluster of 6-10 seeds which has the potential to grow one beet each. When harvesting beets, you get one beet root per plant. On the other hand, many tomato varieties can produce up to 30 pounds of tomatoes per plant throughout the growing season. In addition to figuring out how much to grow, you need to consider the shelf life of your harvest. Beets can last up to 2 months with proper storage, whereas a fully ripe tomato will begin to spoil in just a few days if not eaten or processed.


Now that you know what to grow, where your garden will be located, and how many plants you want to have, you need to know when to grow. Most seed packets will tell you the days to maturity or harvest, so you can anticipate when you should plant based on that. With that in mind, vegetables with a relatively short shelf life that are a one-time harvest should be succession planted. This means that you should plant more of the same variety 2-3 weeks later than the first sowing. A good example of this is lettuce. You won't want to harvest a 6 month supply of romaine all at once, so having multiple batches growing at once will allow you to have a steady amount ready to collect from you garden when you need it.

When to start seeds


When determining the best time to sow your seeds, you need to know your growing zone. Most seed packets will give you a rough guideline of which months to grow based on your location.


Frost dates are another thing to consider when planning your seeds. If you're in an area that drops below freezing at any time, even if for just an hour in the early morning a few times a year, this can be devastating to several plants. We're in north Georgia, so our last frost date of the year is typically in early April. With that said, we often get a surprise day as late as mid May with mornings that dip into the low-30s or high-20s. Don't worry if you've started plants outside that aren't colder hardy and see a frost in the forecast; you can cover them with frost cloth or bring them inside if in a small container.

Although many plants will produce multiple times during the growing season, some types of vegetables can be planted for a spring harvest or a fall harvest. Root vegetables such as radishes & beets have a relatively fast seed-to-harvest time and are cold hardy, so you can sow your seeds in the end of winter or late summer.


Several types of produce, such as lettuces & delicate herbs, have a short shelf life and can't be stored easily once harvested. For this reason, it's best to succession plant these crops every 2-3 weeks. This will allow you to enjoy fresh salad greens from the garden all season long without trying to figure out what you're going to do with 20 heads of romaine that won't last more than a week or so in the fridge. Some cold hardy crops can be succession planted up to 4-6 weeks before the first frost date without issues, so take a look in the farmers almanac to see when that is for your zip code.


Another factor to keep in mind when sowing seeds is the time it takes to get from seed to harvest. Some plants need to be sown directly into the garden bed to avoid damaging the delicate roots while others can be started indoors and transplanted when they are larger & more mature. With that said, direct sowing will often grow faster than a transplant if you have a longer growing season with no danger of a frost in early spring. Some seeds are dual purpose; you can grow microgreens or harvest a mature plant. Beets & lettuces are prime examples of vegetables that are delicious at either stage.

Basic equipment


The first thing you'll need when starting seeds is a place to germinate them. This is mostly personal preference or restricted to your time & budget. You can start seeds in cell trays, a tray of soil, pots, soil blocks, or anything else that will hold your seed starting media. It's important to start small seeds in small cells, because it'll be less likely to get a good germination rate if the water has to travel too far to get to that surface-sown seed. Larger seeds can handle a larger cell, because they are often sown a little deeper and won't have to search so hard for moisture.


Tray/cell covers can help keep in humidity to help accelerate germination; you can even use plastic wrap to trap in moisture. Make sure you remove the cover as soon as your seeds germinate, because too much moisture can lead to damping off, root rot, fungal issues, and more. If you're new to seed starting, it may be best to leave the seed trays uncovered and just wait the extra few days for germination.

If you choose to use soil blocks, you'll need a soil blocker. They can be a little pricey for someone dipping their toes into gardening, but they'll last much longer than flimsy plastic seed trays and are actually better for the health of seedlings.


Although some seeds prefer darkness to germinate, they'll need light once they poke through the soil. Starting seeds indoors will require some form of artificial light, but you don't need anything fancy. Keep in mind that lower-end lights will need to be set closer to the seeds to give them enough light to properly germinate and develop.

Many summer crops such as tomatoes and peppers will germinate faster in warm soil, so heat mats can give your soil the proper temperature to accelerate growth. Once your seeds have germinated, the heat mat is no longer necessary and can be used for your next set of seeds.


All plants need water, so some vessel is required to hydrate your seedlings. Again, you don't need anything fancy. A simple pitcher or cup will do just fine.


We have a large list of gardening equipment available on our Amazon Shop.

Soil mix


We're going to talk about two types of soil mixes: seed starting mix and garden soil.


Seed starting mix doesn't contain any soil at all. It's a mixture of coconut coir, vermiculite, and perlite. You can use the less expensive peat moss instead of coconut coir, but it's less sustainable, breaks down quickly, compresses the mix, and reduces air for the seeds & roots. Vermiculite is an organic mineral that helps retain moisture in the mix. Perlite is an amorphous volcanic glass that provides proper drainage for your plants. We like to use 60% coconut coir, 20% vermiculite, and 20% perlite in our mix.

Garden soil is what you'll be growing your plants in until harvest. This should be comprised of top soil and compost. The soil holds the roots in place while the compost provides nutrients for the plants to thrive. Although you can use chemical fertilizers to get good growth, they rarely contain the trace nutrients many plants need. Also, organic compost doesn't contain carcinogenic chemicals that get trapped within the cell walls of your fruits & veggies.


Sometimes you'll end up with clay and/or sand in the soil on your property. Clay is great at retaining moisture but often become so compact that roots can grow properly, stunting growth or even killing your plants. Sand will provide drainage, but sometimes high levels of sand in your soil will require you to water more frequently due to the lack of moisture retention. If you have a high concentration of clay in your soil, adding sand from the hardware store will actually have the opposite effect and turn your clay into concrete. Add good quality top soil to get proper drainage you need.

Seed germination


Nature is smarter than anything you'll ever read in a book (or on a blog post) or learn from a class. Mimicking the natural process of any living organism will give you the best results, even if we use modern techniques and/or technology to accomplish our goals. Seed germination is a prime example of this. Just like animals, a plant's primary purpose is to grow and multiply. Each crop we want to grow in our garden originated somewhere that has very specific conditions that allow it to successfully reproduce. We're going to explain those conditions.


Most seeds require very moist conditions, via rain or other methods, to germinate. We can give them what they need by pre-soaking them in a small dish of water for 8-24 hours to give them a better chance to do their job. Many seed packets will let you know if that particular variety benefits from a presoak. Typically, larger and/or wrinkled seeds need a good soak to germinate while others can do just fine without it. Good examples of seeds that love a soak are beans, squash, beets, corn, peas, tomatoes, & peppers.

Most perennials require stratification to germinate. In nature, the seeds will fall to the ground in summer or autumn and go through a period of cold temperatures, often below freezing. They activate in spring when the temperatures rise again. We can mimic this by storing these seeds in the refrigerator or freezer, depending on the species, until we're ready to sow them.


Scarification is another technique home gardeners can do to help with germination. Larger seeds, such as beans & several flower varieties, are eaten by small animals and travel through their digestive systems before being sown naturally. The hard outer seed coats are dissolved or roughened in this process to allow the seeds to germinate. We can duplicate this by using small clippers to make a small nick or using sandpaper to roughen the seed coat.

Many summer crops won't germinate very well unless the soil is above room temperature. Tomatoes, peppers, & okra are good examples. A heat mat will warm the soil enough to kickstart the seeds. They will likely germinate without a heat mat, but your speed and rate of germination will not be optimal.


Certain seeds require light while others prefer darkness to germinate. Seed size is a pretty good indicator of which it needs. Small seeds are typically sown on the soil surface or 1/8" deep. They'll get the light needed with little to no cover. Several plants with larger seeds will do better in the dark, so they'll need to be planted deeper to prevent light getting to them. Beans and many flowers require a dark environment to properly germinate.


As mentioned earlier when talking about covers, humidity will help with germination for most seeds. Peppers, basil, & strawberries are difficult to germinate without humidity. It is crucial to remove covers after germination to prevent issues.

In nature, all seeds are direct sown in the ground, so why do we start so many seeds indoors? This is mostly due to jumpstart and extend the growing season, especially in locations that don't have a very long stretch of warm weather. Many cold intolerant crops that require several months to get from seed to harvest can be started indoors and transplanted outside into a garden bed or large container after the last frost date.


Several seedlings do not handle being transplanted very well and should only be sown directly in the soil. Several of them are cold hardy, such as carrots, beets, spinach, & lettuce. Others are not; corn, melons, & zucchini will need to be sown after the last frost. Most melons require soil temperatures that stay at or above 65° F (18° C) for the 80-100 days it takes to reach maturity. Many climates won't allow that unless growing in a greenhouse.

Caring for seedlings


You need to provide the proper conditions for your little seedlings to grow into strong, healthy plants that will survive once transplanted into your garden. They'll need light, moderate to warm temperatures, and regular watering. It's best to bottom-water your seedlings rather than watering from the top. After all, the roots are the part of the plant that require water. Excess moisture on the leaves & stems can lead to mildew and rot.


The conditions indoors are quite different from what your plants will experience when they stay outside full time. You'll need to help strengthen their stalks & stems to ensure they can handle wind. Some people will gently brush their fingertips across the tops of their seedlings several times a day to stimulate them. We like to put an oscillating fan facing the rack that holds our trays. This gives them a gentle breeze at all times to best prepare them once transplanted.

Sometimes we may start our seeds a little too early, or the weather forecast is showing below freezing temperatures after the supposed last frost date. It be necessary to transfer the seedlings into a large cell or small pot to give the plants' roots room to grow. Larger plants such as tomatoes & peppers will often require this unless you're in a warm climate in late winter or early spring.


We don't recommend taking your seedlings and transplanting them into the garden without hardening them off. This is done by taking the trays of seedlings outside for a few hours a day to give them access to full sun. You'll want to start off by giving them 2 hours the first day and increasing the time about 60 minutes each day for about a week until they have had full sun for 8 continuous. Another option would be to find a 3-4 day window in the forecast that will be cloudy and overcast. You can leave them outside for 8-10 hours in this kind of weather, but you'll still need to bring them in each night.

Transplanting plant starts


Cold hardy vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, collards, & onions can be transplanted a few weeks before the last frost date. Most other plant starts will need to wait until after the last frost, but you might want to wait another several weeks if your area is known to have freezing temperatures in late spring.


While your plants are growing indoors, you'll need to make sure you have a place ready to transplant them. Whether you're doing an in-ground garden, raised beds, or containers, you'll need to make sure you have enough space, correct soil chemistry for your crops, adequate sunlight, and a trellis for any vining plants.

Companion planting


One of the best perks about growing your own food is the total control over what goes into it. Fruits & vegetables sold at the supermarket are grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, most of which are carcinogenic. 40% of the pesticides that are USDA Organic approved are banned in the EU due to their cancer-causing effects. Post-harvest, much of the produce is irradiated (which kills many of the nutrients) and/or sprayed with growth retardants. You should do things in a safer, more natural manner if you're going to go through the effort of growing your own food. Companion planting is a way to allow the plants help protect each other, the way nature intended.


Many types of produce we like to grow are heavy feeders; they need a lot of nitrogen in the soil to grow to their potential. While adding rich compost to your garden bed is essential, growing nitrifying plants near your squash, tomatoes, melons, corn, & peppers. Peas & beans will absorb nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil, effectively fertilizing nearby crops.

Planting flowers will bring in beneficial insects. Pollinators like bees & butterflies aren't the only bugs you want in your garden. Lady bugs and other predatory insects will eat aphids, caterpillars, and other bugs that can devastate your plants. Before spraying something on a plant to kill off the bugs, give it a few days. The plants that are being attacked can send out pheromones that will attract predatory insects that target that specific pest. You may lose a cabbage or two in the process, but your problem will be eliminated without spraying poison on your food. This is another reason to plant a little more than you think you need.


Onions, garlic, & most herbs give off strong smells that confuse and deter many garden pests such as deer & rabbits. Planting a single clove of garlic every 12"-24" in your rows will keep many critters away, and you'll have delicious garlic to harvest!

Another useful way to companion plant is by growing crops that don't tolerate heat in the shade of tall or vining plants. You can create a beautifully shaded area for lettuce during the summer with a trellis of vining beans. Taller crops such as corn & sunflowers can also block much of the mid day sun of something shorter behind them.


Speaking of corn and sunflowers, their strong stalks can support the weight of many vining plants. No need to install a trellis system when nature can provide one for you. Beans and corn have an almost symbiotic relationship with the beans nitrifying the trellis-like corn.


Conclusion


Growing your own food in a garden is a very rewarding and therapeutic hobby that can be done in almost any living situation. Starting seeds is the most inexpensive way to grow a lot of produce, although purchasing plant starts can save a lot of time and effort if you've missed the window to start certain crops. Thank you for reading, and we hope you learned something today!


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