Starting Seeds

You can start seeds any time of the year if you are going to grow the plants inside. But if you are planning an outside garden, spring is the time to plant. You can save money by growing your own plants instead of buying plants from a garden center, and it is fun. You can even plan to save seeds from kitchen garden plants you raise this year so that you won't have to buy seeds next year. When the seeds should be started depends on where you live and what kind of plant you are starting. Check the seed package to see what is suggested.

Step One: Soil

Most people buy a potting soil mix for planting seeds. The soil should be light weight (keeping air space for roots to grow), fine textured (made of very small pieces) and hold water well. This usually means it has peat moss and vermiculite in it. There are many recipes for mixing your own potting soil for growing plants from seed. A common one is 1 part garden soil, 1 part peat and 1 part vermiculite. This homemade mix should be sterilized by heating in an oven for half an hour at 180 degrees Fahrenheit to kill weed seeds, insects, and plant diseases.

Step Two: Getting Containers

Containers don't have to be expensive, but they should have holes in the bottom to let extra water run out. You can use recycled containers from the grocery store. Strawberries and other fruits sometimes come in plastic trays that already have holes in both the top and bottom for drainage and air exchange. You can also use sundae containers and salad boxes from fast food restaurants.

Cardboard tubes from paper towel rolls and toilet paper can be used too. Cut the tubes into 2 or 3 inch sections (5 to 8 cm) and stand them up on a clean Styrofoam meat tray before filling with potting soil. Plant only 1 or 2 seeds in each section. These can be planted right in the garden without disturbing the roots of the plant. Make sure the top edge of the cardboard is planted below the soil surface or the cardboard will act like a wick and dry out the young plant.

Cardboard egg cartons work like towel tubes and are easy to use for starting seeds. Styrofoam egg cartons can be used but you need to remove the plant from the Styrofoam carton before transplanting because it does not break down in the soil. Make sure to poke drainage holes in the bottom to prevent over-watering. Some people plant in egg shells and stand them up in the carton. When it is time to plant outside, the egg shell goes right into the garden along with the little plant.

Step Three: Planting

Wet the soil first so that it is not too dusty to handle. Fill the containers with damp soil to about a centimeter or two from the top. Press down lightly on the soil so that there are no large air spaces.

Seeds are planted at different depths based on the size of the seeds. A good general rule is to plant the seed about twice as deep as the diameter of the seed. The diameter is the thickness of the seed. This means that a big seed like a bean would get planted deeper than a small seed like a tomato. Very small seeds like impatiens can be put on top of the soil and just pressed lightly into the soil by hand. Put 2 or 3 seeds in each container because not all seeds will start growing.

The seeds will start better if they can be kept fairly warm, around 70 degrees Farenheit. Many people like to cover the containers with plastic or a lid until the seeds germinate or sprout. This makes sure they do not dry out as they first start to grow which will kill the young plant. Make sure the containers are not in direct sunlight if they are covered or the container can get so hot the plants will die. Take off any cover as soon as green leaf-like growth can be seen. The containers can now be moved to a cooler spot.

Step Four: Caring for Seedlings

Water well when the soil feels dry to the touch. Once a week they can get houseplant liquid fertilizer made at about 1/4 strength. Give the seedlings plenty of light. Many people set up fluorescent shop lights which can be hung just above the plants without giving off too much heat. If possible, give them 12 to 14 hours of light a day. If plants don't get enough light, they will become tall and spindly. These will not be as strong when planted outside.

As the plants grow, they should be thinned so that they have plenty of room to grow roots. This means cutting off some of the plants with scissors if the containers are small or the plants are large. The plants left in the pots will grow better with more space.

Step Five: Transplanting

Plants grown indoors must be strengthened before they are planted outside. This is called hardening off. You do it by putting the plants outside for a couple of hours a day for several days. The moving air outside makes the plants toughen up. Planting them right outside without hardening them off first will probably cause many of them to grow slowly or die. Water them right after planting them in the ground and make sure they stay watered for the first several days.

For more helpful links, check ESP's From Seed to Plant page. See our Mistreating Seeds page for tips on special treating some seeds to get them to grow.
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