Are you thinking about growing a garden this year? You aren’t alone. There has been a major surge in interest for people wanting to grow more of their own food and buy less from stores.
A study showed that during normal times 1 in 3 households had some level of interest in growing their own food. Since the coronavirus and a multitude of other factors there has been a major resurgence in home gardening.
We have many seasoned gardeners and many more still working out their beginning years. Growing a garden is very rewarding for everyone involved and one misconception is that gardening is expensive. While it helps to buy some things for the garden, there is a lot that can be accomplished even with smaller budgets.
When I started gardening I picked some free tomato seeds out of a salad and planted them up with some recycled containers. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time and gardening was a hobby as the basis was I just needed dirt, seeds, water, and either land or containers.
The secret to a productive garden starts with getting your seeds going. Some people opt to buy plant starts though you can’t always find the varieties you want from the store.
Starting a garden off from seeds is instrumental in saving seed for the future and plants that do better for your individual growing conditions. You can later trade seeds or small plants with other gardeners. A few years of only selecting the best plants and the best seeds results in plants that do extremely well in your yard.
Most of my family thought I was crazy with my seed and yard experiments. They don’t think so anymore and many of them are now learning and applying with their own garden journeys. I believe everyone has a gardener in there.
The best time for planning a garden is when it is resting. Once the snow starts coming down and winter gets going it allows plenty of time to prepare for spring.
Seed Starting 101: Start some seeds for spring and level up your gardening Skills
“Do you want more tomatoes?”, I ask while handing my partner another basket of random produce from the garden. He groans as I hand him 5 more giant zucchini.
He and I were both skeptical we would get much as this was our first year doing a garden in zone 4b in a new planting bed. I’m a veteran with growing so it was interesting teaching him along the way as he has never grown anything before.
He got to gloat to his family about how he was in possession of a garden and gets tons of food out of it (when it is up and active). We were even giving some of it to various family members because we had a lot extra. I’m getting one last session in with some Fall gardening though we will be quickly winding down during winter.
We did most of the work by getting our little seeds started and transplanting them out in the yard. It took weeks or months depending on the plant and many of them died. Overall, the process to grow from seed isn’t too challenging.
You just need to learn the basics for starting your own seeds at home.
Pick Your Seeds
Starting seeds indoors is usually how I cut costs on what I plan on planting because trying to buy every flower, herb or vegetable that I want usually starts to get expensive. Though normally I buy up seeds considered annuals. While you learn to start seeds it is also important to learn how to store seeds.
Sometimes it can be worthwhile to splurge when acquiring perennial type crops as they often take more time to be workable or harvestable, things like asparagus or possibly strawberries.
Important things to consider are varieties already known to do well in your area. Many seed companies you might find locally have a pretty good collection but all you need to do is check the growing information before acquiring the seeds. Seed companies also usually have an indicator on what is a difficult crop to grow or what is easy.
Read Your Packet
Most seed packets for food and herb plants have pretty good instructions on how to start your seeds. Usually, the instructions are to stick the seeds in moist dirt that is not in an extremely cool location and to wait 2-7 days for the sprouts to appear.
Some more specialty seeds might have cold stratifying instructions, or tell you to remove a thick seed coat, and I had a tree variety one time with instructions to set the seeds on fire. Though you most likely won’t encounter this unless trying to start various berries or trees.
Things to clear should be the instruction on when to sow for your growing zone, how deep to plant, how to space the plants, and any special requirements. They might list things like temperatures required to germinate, how to do transplanting, and any succession planting. Following a guide is the best way to get those first bumps of success.
There are zillions of choices out there when choosing a container for seed starting. I have started seeds in tin cans, yogurt cups, old buckets, and trash milk cartons just to list a few things. You truly don’t have to splurge on anything special unless you really want to. The kits can allow for a more organized or pleasing to the eye seed starting area.
There is pretty good variety when shopping for greenhouse kits. Their usual presentation is a plastic tray with a planting cell insert with a clear plastic greenhouse dome. Some of them even come with peat pellets that expand when exposed to water. They may even have a heat mat to keep soil temperature higher during germination. I’m often sprouting in zone 4b during winter and my indoor temperatures are usually very low at night. Even being a spendthrift like I am I keep a couple heat mats around to keep the sprouts happy.
What is nice about these kits is each tray can handle up to 72 seeds being planted. They are also pretty small and can conveniently fit in a small growing space. The only downside is the seedlings will need to be moved either to the garden or to larger planting containers within a short time frame. They will get all crowded and tangled if left too long in the cell trays.
If you are on a budget, you can reuse containers that have clear plastic and plant inside those.
You can also opt to just get the seed starting trays many garden stores sell. They often are considered something for professionals, some have domes, and some have special features. If cleaned and tended to carefully, the higher grade trays can be reused for many years. The trays with thinner plastic tend to crumple or split easily and often don’t survive a couple of years of use.
When using random household items really the sky is the limit here. Households produce all kinds of container waste. Tin cans, milk cartons, yogurt containers, or any old container that can hold adequate dirt and can drain away excess water. This stuff should be stuff you buy to use anyway so isn’t costing you anything extra.
The nice part about using home planters is if you give plants away you don’t sacrifice losing a good pot.
Many stores have seed starting soil. Though I usually like to mix my own seed starting soil. With a seed starting mix you want it to hold moisture well but still be light and airy. The starter mix should also be sterile and not have a lot of organic bits.
If you opt to use soil from outside or compost you run the risk of having to deal with pests. Soil gnats are a reoccurring gardener annoyance and sometimes you might find the resident pill bug that have no qualms eating tender new plants. You might also find a collection of tiny worm-like creatures known as nematodes that can damage vegetables by going after the roots.
Soil needs to be damp and moist though not flooded and not drowning the sprouts. The soil also needs to not dry out too much while seeds are germinating. It works best to plant seeds and keep some kind of greenhouse effect in action either by use the planting trays with the greenhouse dome or some kind of clear plastic container that holds the dirt and moisture.
The soil should be checked daily to make sure the moisture is optimal and in many cases it is better to bottom water. You can also use a very fine watering can so as not to disturb top soil or sprouts too much. Watering too aggressively on top means lost seedlings.
The term Damping off is when plants get fungal growth. If will look like a fuzzy growth on the roots and if left alone can kill off seedlings. To prevent fungus growth it helps to add in a day where the plants are sprayed with 3% hydrogen peroxide and remove the greenhouse dome on occasion to help lower humidity down.
Seedlings need strong light after they start to open up from their seed coats. If the growing area doesn’t have adequate light then seedlings will grow very tall and thin, stretched out. Many gardeners are picky with the supplemental lighting they choose.
You can go with a lot of different options and expense levels with lighting. Many gardeners opt to get a simple fluorescent light meant for seed starting. Others prefer LED strips or compact fluorescents.
When you plant you will usually pop 2 or 3 seeds per pot. If any seedling dies, you have a spare or two. But you usually don’t want your seedlings crowding each other so you may select the strongest sprout out of the bunch. Some people like to try to keep their excess sprouts and re-plant them in other spare pots to hedge against losses or to give away extras.
Also I spent some years where I started around 500 or so of the same tomato seed and noticed that even with the same light, same dirt, same watering schedule many seedlings exhibited stronger growth patterns. I would pick off the runts or the ones I didn’t think had good growth patterns. All this to say that seedlings aren’t all equal and the goal is to select out the best ones.
My advice is if you are new is not to try to separate out all of them as inexperienced fingers will crush or damage the sprouts. It takes some practice to remove the seedlings out safely. This is also why I like to start some of the more delicate sprouts on a moist towel and then plant them in dirt, while other seeds I pot directly.
Hardening off is a term for when you are trying to toughen up plants previously kept indoors to the outside. Sunlight is very intense on leaves that haven’t toughened up enough to handle it. Another tactic some like to use is keeping their seedlings in direct path of a fan because it signals to stems to get a bit thicker. The thought process is to get them ready to survive the outside winds.
Other people like to gradually give their trays some outside time where they place their seedlings in a shady spot where they can get some indirect light for about an hour. They then start leaving them outside for more hours until they can go a full day outside.
The goal is that by the time you are ready to plant the tiny plants are already well adapted to being outside. They can be safely tucked into the garden and given a bit of compost and water so they can grow.
Seed starting is a very rewarding process and is a key skill if you want more options for your home garden. It’s something worth experimenting with this coming spring. In the beginning there is a slight learning curve from the germinating and seedlings growing. You can expect some loss as you get a hang of the routine. Not every seed will germinate and even of those that do some of them have innately different growth patterns. The other lesson is not every kind of plant or variety of plant will do well in your garden.
Seed starting is still a worthwhile venture if you ever find yourself in the store and find they don’t carry a variety you want to try. Or you might be like me and wonder why you are paying $6 for a young plant when you can get 40 or so seeds for $2 and most likely have minimum of 30 starter plants in a couple of weeks and they are the variety I want?