If you’re like many gardeners, you have never tried growing your own plants from seed. Or, if you have tried, maybe your seedlings didn’t resemble those you see at the garden center each spring, and you’re wondering how you can do better.
Rest assured, starting your own seedlings is fun, easy, and well worthwhile. By growing your own transplants, you can choose from hundreds of unusual varieties—including those with tolerance to heat or cold, disease resistance, and unmatched flavor—that simply aren’t available at garden centers. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve grown your entire garden organically right from the very start.
For seed-starting success, follow this simple plan.
1. Choose a fine medium.
For healthy seedlings, you’ve got to give them a loose, well-drained medium (seed-starting mix) composed of very fine particles. You can buy a seed-starting mix at your local garden center—or make your own. Don’t use potting soil—often, it’s too rich and doesn’t drain well enough for seedlings.
2. Assemble your containers.
Many gardeners start their seeds in leftover plastic “six packs” from the garden center, empty milk cartons, or Styrofoam cups. If you don’t have containers on hand, you can buy plastic “cell packs,” individual plastic pots, or sphagnum peat pots. Or make your own pots from newspaper. Whatever you use, be sure your containers drain well (usually through holes in the bottoms of the containers).
Set the pots inside a tray so that you can water your seedlings from the bottom (by adding water to the tray) rather than disturbing them by watering from the top. You can buy seed-starting trays at garden centers and many hardware stores.
3. Start your seeds!
Moisten your seed-starting mix before you plant your seeds. If you water after you plant the seeds, they can easily float to the edges of the container—not where you want them to be. To moisten the mix, simply pour some into a bucket, add warm water, and stir. After about 8 hours (or when the mix has absorbed the water), fill your containers with the moistened mix.
Plant at least two, but no more than three, seeds per container. The seed packet usually tells you how deep to plant, but a good rule of thumb is three times as deep as the seeds’ smallest diameter. (Some flower seeds require light to sprout—if that’s the case, simply lay the seeds on the surface of the mix, then tamp them in gently with your finger.)
After you’ve planted your seeds, cover the tray loosely with plastic to create a humid environment. At 65° to 70°F, your seeds should sprout just fine without any supplementary heat. If the room temperature is cooler than that, you can keep the seeds warm by setting the tray on top of a heating mat made specifically for starting seeds.
Tomato, zucchini, and pumpkin seeds should push their sprouts through the surface of the mix in a few days. Peppers sprout in about a week. And some seeds, such as parsley, can take as long as 3 weeks to sprout, so be patient.