Starting your plants from seed is a cost-effective way to get lots of plants, quickly. It's also often the only way to ensure that you can get varieties beyond the common ones carried at your local nursery. If you want to grow that great, rare heirloom tomato you've been hearing about, or a whole bed's worth of hot peppers, starting from seed is the way to go.
It takes a bit of planning, and some basic equipment, but starting seeds indoors is a really rewarding way to add plants to your garden. Here's how to do it.
Gather Your Equipment
There is some basic equipment you'll need for seed starting: lights, trays or pots to plant in (recycled items are perfect for seed starting), soil-less potting mix, and a mister are all useful. If you are only planning on starting a few small plants, you can forego the lights if you have a bright, south-facing window you can grow in.
Figure Out What You Want to Grow, and Get Your Seeds
Look through your seed catalogs or local nursery to figure out which seeds you'd like to start. If you're wondering which catalogs to start with, here is a list of my favorite sources for organic seeds.
Come Up with a Schedule
The next step is figuring out when you need to start your seeds. You won't be starting them all at the same time; some need more time than others to germinate and grow to a good planting size. The easiest way to figure out when to start your seeds is to first figure out when your last spring frost date is. Then, look on your seed packet. Every seed packet tells you how many weeks before planting you should sow. So, for example, if your last spring frost date is May 15th, and your seed packet says to start seed six weeks before that, you'd want to start your seeds around April 1st.
It's a good idea to write these dates out on a calendar so you don't forget to sow things at the right time.
Now it's time to sow your seeds, either in cell packs, pots, trays, or recycled items. Pay attention to the instructions on your seed packet in terms of planting depth. Some seeds will need to be planted a half-inch deep or deeper, while others are simply pressed into the surface of your seed starting mix.
Once your seeds are planted, label them (definitely -- don't assume you'll remember what everything is later!), water them in well with a mister, and place either the cover of your seed starting tray or a clear plastic bag loosely over your container. This will make a nice, humid environment for your seeds, keeping them evenly moist so they germinate well. Monitor moisture, keeping the soil-less mix evenly moist (not soaking wet, but don't let it dry out, either). As soon as you see sprouts, remove the plastic cover so your plants get good air flow.
Monitor Your Seedlings
Monitor your seedlings daily, and mist or water them when the surface of the planting mix feels dry.
Once your seedlings have their first true set of leaves, you can start feeding them. A nice diluted (1/4 strength) dose of fish emulsion or diluted compost tea, applied weekly, is perfect.
If your seedlings start outgrowing your cell packs or small seed starting containers, but it's not yet time to move them out to the garden, you'll need to transplant them in to larger containers, also known as "potting up." The new container should only be an inch or so larger than the old one. Plant the seedling at the same depth they were growing originally, and fill in with good quality organic potting mix. Water in well. If you're growing tomatoes, you can transplant them deeply; roots will form along the buried part of the stem.
Once it's warm enough to plant outdoors, and your soil is ready to be worked, it's time to start hardening off. This process acclimates your pampered seedlings to the more harsh conditions out in your garden, and is essential for making sure that all of that work you put into starting plants from seed doesn't go to waste. Here's how to harden off seedlings.
Save money, grow the varieties you want, and be able to garden in those long, dark days of late winter -- start some seeds indoors!