It’s winter, and the garden is at rest, but I’ve been plenty busy, indoors, getting a head start on next year’s garden.
Starting plants from seed is one of my favorite winter gardening chores. It requires very little time and effort, and I’m usually rewarded with almost instant results, as the shoots of new life begin emerging from the soil in just a matter of a days.
Starting plants from seed is also one of my favorite ways to save money in the garden. For just a couple of bucks, I can produce hundreds of little seedlings for the same cost that I’d pay for six, or so, at a local nursery or home store.
There are a lot of wonderful articles written by professional gardeners and garden bloggers to help the beginner and veteran gardener, alike, on seed starting. Fine Gardening Magazine and Mother Earth News are two of my favorite sites to visit when I’m searching for DIY and how-to gardening information. Between the two of them (and all of the other gardening gurus on the net), they’ve pretty much got the subject fully covered.
However, it dawned on me the other day, as I was starting a new batch of brassica seedlings, that they didn’t tell me everything there is to know about seed starting, and there are a few things that I’ve learned, by myself, along the way that have made seed starting a little easier and cost effective for me.
So, just for the fun of it, I thought I’d share three of my own tips on seed starting with you – tips that you may have never learned from an expert gardener.
First, veteran gardeners will tell you that you want to choose a good seed starting medium – one that says “seed starting potting mix”, or something similar, on the bag. Standard potting soil, or compost may be too rich an environment for seeds to germinate in, and soil from your yard will, most likely, contain too many weed seeds, bacteria, or fungi that will compete with the new seedlings –although you can use it if you sterilize it first (another great cost savings that I may need to think about doing in the future).
One thing that they may not have told you, and I’ve learned, though, is that, when working with seed starting mix, make sure that you get it nice and wet before scooping it into your seed starting container. How many times have I put the dry mix into the container and then attempted to add water to it, only to find the water beading up and running off of the surface and taking for-e-ver for the water to fully saturate the soil? Let’s just say it was a while before I had my “a-ha!” moment. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but the best way to utilize this seed starting mix is to incorporate the water into the soil before ever attempting to add it to the planting container. If you want to spend time planting, and not waiting for your soil mixture to get prepared to accept the seed, simply take a large mixing bowl, add in six or seven handfuls of soil, then add water and mix until all of the soil is nice and damp, and there are no dry spots left – you’ll be surprised at how much water it takes to saturate all of the mix. (If you over-water, just squeeze the excess water out, in your hand, before putting the soil into your containers).
Speaking of containers, Mother Earth News says, “You can pick up various sizes of seed starting trays at your local garden center.” They are absolutely correct, but that can get pretty expensive. To be fair, they also mention that, “If you don’t want to purchase a setup like this, you can use recycled materials. For example, clean, empty yogurt cups with holes drilled in the bottom could be set inside a large baking pan to create a great tray kit.” I used to do the yogurt cup thing, and it worked fine for getting the seeds started, however it wasn’t the easiest to work with when it came to transplanting the baby seedlings, and this brings me to my second tip. If I were to recommend one seed starting container, it would, hands down, have to be the toilet paper or paper towel tube container. It’s practically free, the perfect size for seed starting, and makes transplanting seedlings a cinch. I cut my tubes down to about an inch in size, then pack the wet, seed starting mixture into them. When it’s time to do the transplanting, I simply unravel the tube and gain instant access to my seedlings. Wish I would have known about this sooner!
Now, I know that the cool, trendy, thing to do, right now, with these cardboard tube starters is to plant them directly into the ground, where the cardboard will decompose, feed the soil, and the plant will get off to a healthy start. You are certainly welcome to do just that.
However, and this brings me to my third and final tip, if you start seeds the way that I do, you won’t want to plant the container into the ground, and here’s why: When it comes to seed starting, I sow the seeds pretty heavily. In other words, I don’t plant one seed per container. Oh, don’t get me wrong. In my early days, I was pretty meticulous about doing just that. Occasionally, however, a rogue seed (or two) would escape my hand and end up in the same container as another seed without my knowing it until after the seedlings had sprouted. At first, it used to bother me. After all, I was trying to get my plants off to the best start possible and didn’t want any crowding going on at the root level because more than one plant was occupying the same starting cell. Still, I could not bring myself to kill off any of the unwanted seedlings. Besides, I figured, it was like getting another, free, plant! And then, it hit me! (I know, you’re already there, aren’t you?) What was I thinking, purposely planting one seed per container? If I really wanted to get a bang for my buck, why not pack as many seeds into one cell as possible? After all, the laws of physics state that no two pieces of matter can occupy the same space, right? Now, I know this might be upsetting some purists, but I’ve never had any problems with this method, to date.
Besides, all of my seedlings enjoy plenty of space in just a matter of weeks, when I pot them up into larger containers.
To save time, when potting up, I prefer to use store-bought, all-natural, fiber containers to house my little seedlings. (I typically purchase them at the end of the summer, or early fall, when I can buy them for just pennies).
But, I’ve also made my own, larger containers, using paper grocery bags, to save even more money. They work just as well, and are really easy to make, as I’ve blogged about here.
So, there you have it – my three, simple tips for seed starting that you can pack away, if you’d like, into your own gardening toolbox: pre-soak your seed starting mix, use toilet paper and paper towel tubes for containers, and when it comes to seed sowing, don’t be afraid to pack lots of seed into every cell! I hope that these tips were helpful, that you’ve learned something new, and that you’ll be able to utilize one or all of them when starting seeds for your very own garden, this year.
Do you have any special seed starting tips that you’ve learned on your own and that you’d like to share?
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Bible’s Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but what about a Gardening Golden Rule? Is there any such thing?
I did a quick internet search, today, and quickly stumbled upon a few: “leave the earth better than you found it”, “group plants together that have similar water needs”, and “never pass along a problem plant”. These are all great gardening rules!
This morning, as I was starting some more seeds, indoors, I thought about my own Golden Rule of Gardening, which is this: “All new varieties of seeds must be planted indoors, in individual seed pellets first, before ever attempting to plant them outdoors.” (Okay, that’s really wordy, and I need to work on a condensed version) So, why the rule? Because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seeded outdoors first and had no clue what I was looking at a week later when a mix of seedlings emerged from the soil.
So, one of my top priorities in gardening, now, is to become familiar with what the different varieties of plants that I grow look like at the seedling stage.
The best way I’ve found to do that is by starting seeds indoors, in individual seed starting pellets.
(Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage seedlings)
My favorite medium for this is Jiffy Seed Starting Pellets. I love the bottom-up watering system, which makes it much easier to control the moisture level and ensures that I won’t accidentally wash any small seeds or seedlings away. By growing them indoors, I can check on the plants’ growth, daily, giving me a clear picture of seedling development. (In the future, I’d like to take pictures at each stage and keep them in a photo album to create my own field guide for identifying all of plants that I am growing on our property).
Once I am familiar with what the different seedlings look like, then I give myself permission to plant away outdoors!
Knowing what the seedlings look like helps me to judge whether the seeds I’ve planted have germinated, eliminate any foreign weed seedlings that my be in the vicinity, help identify plants to aid in the thinning out process, and also help identify any volunteers that may have sprung up in different places throughout the garden where wind or animals may have planted them from the previous season.
That’s my Golden Rule of Gardening, and I’m sticking to it!
What about you? Do you have a Gardening Golden Rule that you absolutely must abide by?
This is the time of year when I love to cuddle up in a warm blanket on the couch with a cup of hot tea, a highlighter, and my favorite source of pleasure reading, seed catalogs, and create a shopping list of seeds for this year’s garden.
Starting plants from seed is a most rewarding experience. All it takes is a little time and effort. The most difficult part, for me, is deciding what not to plant!
This year, I’ve come up with a list of qualifications for choosing seed that will make narrowing down the field a bit easier for me. If you’re looking to start a glorious vegetable garden from seed, perhaps these tips will help you, too.
1. Choose seed for foods that you are familiar with and know you are going to consume. Although I have a soft spot for growing exotically-named heirloom veggies, and one’s that we’ve never eaten before, this year’s garden is going to be full of veggies that will end up in our tummies (lots of melons, tomatoes, and beans), not on the compost heap (mustard, huckleberries, and spaghetti squash). When choosing seed, it’s good to ask yourself first, “Are we really going to eat this?”
2. Choose seed for foods that are based on the amount of room you have for growing. I’ve got a large garden, so I don’t have to worry about this too much, but if you’ve got a smaller garden, you should. Even if you love fresh broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and corn, you’ll probably be better off buying it from the store or farmer’s market, since these plants take up a huge amount of space for the amount of food they produce. In small gardens, you’ll get a much better bang for your buck when you choose seeds like lettuce, beans, peas, onions, and garlic, where you’ll use up the entire pack and can plant a lot in a small area. In a larger garden, like mine, it’s good to be selective about the varieties you’re going to grow. You may want to grow three different types of corn, but do you really have the room? It’s wise to plan ahead, and put your garden down on paper, plotting out the growing area so that you don’t order an over-abundance of seed, or try to grow foods that won’t be accommodated in the space…ask yourself, “Am I going to have room for this?”
3. Choose seed for foods based on the number of days to harvest, or particular growing season. This year, I’m paying particularly close attention to these two items, which can be found on most seed packets, or listed in catalog descriptions. In the past, I haven’t, and have been overwhelmed by harvests coming in all at once. It is a good idea to choose seed for plants that will produce early, mid, and late season harvests, so that you have things coming into season at different times. For example, select one tomato that ripens in 50 days, another at 70, and still another at 90. (You can also start seedlings at different times and get a similar effect, but early and late season varieties are usually particularly suited to that time of year for growing, and will probably produce better when grown at the right time). Growing season is also important. Is your growing season short or long? If it’s short, you do not want to select seed for plants that are going to take a long time to produce. If it’s long, you can be more choosy…ask yourself, “When am I going to be harvesting this plant, and do I have enough time to grow it?”
5. Choose seeds based on the climate of your growing area. Do you live near the coast, where there is not much fluctuation in temperature, or in a desert, where temperatures skyrocket during the summer? It’s important to select seed according to how well it is going to perform under your climate’s particular conditions. Here, in the Central Valley of California, it’s rather hot and dry, so I look for seed packets that boast words like, “slow-to-bolt”, or “holds up well in hot weather”, and tend to stay away from ones that say, “does best in cool weather”, or “doesn’t tolerate the heat”. Since the places I purchase my seeds from sell seed from all around the world, I hone in on seeds that come from places with similar climates to mine — places like Asia and the middle east, rather than Russia, or Scandinavian countries. That does not mean that I won’t try to grow something that isn’t particularly suited to my climate, but the majority of my seeds are chosen for climate compatibility. When choosing seed, ask yourself, “Is this plant well-suited to my climate?”
6. Choose seeds based on last year’s production and quality. It’s a good idea to keep a garden journal so that you can keep track of all of the different plant varieties that you grow and chart successes and failures. I purchase a lot of seed each year, and have high hopes that each will produce and abundance of fruit and look and taste great, but the reality is, not all plants are created equal — some produce well, but leave something to be desired in the taste category, and others taste amazing, but have relatively low production. I almost always choose taste over production, so once I come across something I don’t like, I make a note of it and make sure not to order that particular seed the following year. If you’ve got a small garden, you might prefer quantity over quality, and choose your seeds accordingly. When choosing seed, pull out your handy garden journal from the previous year and ask, “Is this one worth re-purchasing or, if you’ve saved seed, worth re-growing?”
7. Choose seeds based on their ease of germinating, growing, and harvesting. When it comes to these qualities, not all plants are created equal, either. Some plants require cold stratification before they will germinate, others need soil temperatures to be above seventy-five degrees. Some plants like dry conditions, others like perpetually wet feet. Some grow neat and tidy, while other sprawl and take over the garden worse than an out-of-control weed. Most veggies are easy to harvest, while others grow spikes, and itchy hairs, or need machines to take their hulls off. If you’re a beginner, you want to look for words like, “easy to grow”, “compact”, and “bush habit”, so that you will experience success in your gardening. Even if you’re an experienced gardener, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the plant before you get started. Last year, I grew hull-less varieties of barley, oats, and french lentil beans. They were the easiest seeds to sow, and grew wonderfully with hardly any attention being paid to them, but when it came time to harvest, they were the most difficult plants I’ve ever had to deal with. Although I cherish the experience, I will not be growing any more of these plants until I find an efficient and inexpensive way to harvest them. Lesson learned: when choosing seed ask, “Is it easy to sow, grow, and harvest?”
9. Choose a few seeds for their novelty, or to try something new. This may seem like it’s a contradiction to point number one, but I think a small portion of the garden should be devoted to growing something purely for experimentation and/or fun – you never know what great and wonderful things you’ll love to keep in your garden until you give them a try! This year, I’m introducing pineapple ground cherries and dinosaur kale into my garden. I chose the ground cherries (a relative of the tomato) because they look pretty, and I’m curious to know what they taste like. The dinosaur kale I selected just because I love the name! So, when choosing seed ask yourself, “What do I want to grow just for fun?”
10. Choose seeds that will allow you to reproduce the plant. First, this means that you’ll only want to select seeds that are heirloom, open-pollinated, non-GMO (genetically modified), and non-hybrid. While I don’t have time to go into all the details here, suffice it to say that these types of seeds are far more likely to allow you to reproduce “true” offspring year after year than hybrids, which may contain a “terminator” gene that will not allow the plant to reproduce at all, or will not breed true, and you’ll end up with unpredictable results. My favorite sources for heirloom, open-pollinated seeds are: Baker Creek (which I sell, and you can purchase by visiting my What’s For Sale page), Bountiful Gardens, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. While seed saving from all fruits and vegetables is possible, some are easier to save than others. Self-pollinating plants are the easiest to save seed from and include peas, peppers, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, lettuce, and grains. Saving seed means saving money and makes a lot of sense. To learn more about it, check out the book Seed to Seed, the gold standard for learning how to save and store seed. After you do, when choosing seed ask, “Will I be able to save this seed?”
These are the criteria I’ve decided to use, this year, to help me create a more focused shopping list of fruit and vegetable seeds for my garden. If you decide to start a garden from seed, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful, too.
I love being able to “garden” in the middle of winter! While it may be indoors, and on a much smaller scale than what takes place out in my main garden, winter seed-sowing brings just as much joy to my life as outdoor spring planting does (especially since I get to do it in the comfort of my perfectly toasty, 75-degree home!)
This year, I’m using Jiffy products for seed starting. I love these “all in one” containers that make seed starting a happy occasion, rather than a chore. All I have to do is fill the bottom of the container with water, wait for the pellets to absorb it, plant the seeds, cover with the transparent plastic cover, and wait for the seedlings to emerge. Nothing could be simpler — and I’m all about simple when it comes to starting seeds!
What I love about these Jiffy seed starting kits is the way that they handle water. In the past, I’ve lost a lot of seedlings to damping off (due to over-hydration), or drying up (due to under-hydration). I don’t think I’m going to have that problem this year, as this system makes it much easier to control watering.
I’ve got a head start on most of the cool weather crops with this first planting: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, onion, and peppers (which are not really cool weather plants, but seeds can still be started indoors in our area at this time of year).
At the end of January, I’ll be starting the seeds of annual herbs, more onions, garlic, spinach, more peppers, and tomatoes.
The main reason for starting my own seedlings is that it is much more economical than purchasing transplants at the nursery, or local hardware store. Even if I’m not planting a lot of a certain variety (like eggplants, a certain tomato, or spaghetti squash), if I’m careful to save the seed in a cool, dark place, I can usually get three to four years worth of good germination from that one packet, before I need to purchase another one. Also, I can re-use the tops and bottoms of the Jiffy kits, from year to year, leaving me only to replace the growing pellets.
I realize that there are cheaper ways to start my own seeds, but time is precious to me right now, and with all of the cooking, cleaning, teaching, blogging, and other things I’ve got going on in my life, I’m willing to pay a little more in this area so that I at least have a little time to relax at the end of the day!
Another reason I prefer to sow my own seed is that I get to grow varieties that just can’t be found in my local stores — heirloom seeds that have been handed down over the centuries, that have great histories, and come from all around the world. My favorite places to order seeds from are: Baker Creek, Bountiful Gardens, and Southern Exposure. I love what these companies are dedicated to preserving!
I also think home-grown seedlings are much healthier and perform better in the garden than their store-bought counterparts, but that’s just my opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree.
So, what about you? Are you a seed-sower, or do you prefer to purchase ready-to-go transplants? If you’ve never done it before, why not go out and purchase a small Jiffy starter kit and some seed and start “gardening in the winter” right along with me?