Seed Starting Basics

Before we get into the basics of seed starting, I think it’s important to understand WHY we would want to start our garden plants from seed to begin with. There’s plenty of great nurseries where you can buy started pants, so why bother? 

(I’m not saying you shouldn’t support your local nursery or garden center – I prefer to buy started plants for the more difficult and time consuming plants to start from seed, such as lavender. Shop local!)

WHY START YOUR OWN SEEDS?

  1. Starting Your Own Seeds *can* Save you Money
    Starting your own seeds *can* save you a bunch of money. The caveat here is only if you’re frugal in your seed shopping and can resist buying All. The. Seeds! A started tomato plant, for example, would probably run me $3-4 per plant. I have a big garden and grow around 60 tomato plants. My budget just couldn’t handle buying all those seedlings. However, I can purchase a couple packages of seeds for the price of just one or two seedlings and have more than enough seeds to fill my garden with juicy tomato goodness.
    There are some seed companies like SeedsNOW and MIGardener that sell seed packs for as low as $.99-2.00. But keep in mind that these packages will probably contain less seeds than a more expensive counterpart. Very rare seeds will also cost you more.
  2. Jump Start for Short Growing Seasons
    I live in Maine, zone 5, so for me, seed starting is a necessity. You see, our growing season is pretty short, around 150 days total. So, if I want to get a good harvest from my plants, I need to give them a head start! They’ll be growing away in the warmth and safety of my house while there’s still white stuff on the ground outside. Then, when my last frost has passed, I’ll plant those babies outside and let them spread their roots (metaphorically and literally). Things like peppers and tomatoes, I couldn’t just put a seed in the ground because there isn’t enough time in my growing season for those seeds to come to maturity and produce fruit for me before the freeze returns in the fall to kill off all my plants.
  1. Opens Up a Whole New World of Food
    This is the most important reason for me. Gardening is hard work. It can be hard physically in the heat and the dirt. It can be frustrating when you’re battling pests, diseases and your own learning curve. There’s been plenty of times where I’d like to throw in the towel. If then, after busting my butt to try and grow my own food, I walk into the grocery store and see the exact same produce I’ve got growing in my garden on sale, my motivation goes right out the window. However, when I grow varieties I have never tried, and fruits and vegetables that I have never even seen let alone tasted, I’m much more invested in my work.
    A great example of this was with the Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries that I grew last year. A ground cherry is sort of a cross between a cherry tomato and a tomatillo. They’re incredibly sweet and a little bit tart, and grow in paper-lantern looking husks, that it makes it feel like you’re unwrapping a piece of garden candy. I had never in my life seen a ground cherry, it brought me so much joy to see my children devour them and walk visitors through my garden and watch their faces as they tasted something brand new for the very first time. 

WHERE DO I GET SEEDS?

There are thousands of seed companies, all across the US and the world, I’m sure. You can search online and if a company prints a catalogue, you can usually sign up for their mailing list and they’ll mail you one for free. A few of my favorites include Johnny’s Selected Seeds (which is right here in Maine!), Baker Creek Rare Seeds, and Botanical Interests. I’d also recommend checking locally to see if there are any seed libraries near you. Or, you might try signing up for a seed swap! These are all fun ways to get seeds for free or very inexpensively.

Once you start shopping, you’ll notice a few terms. It’s helpful to know what these terms mean:

Heirloom
The way I remember the difference between Heirloom and Hybrid is by thinking of breeding dogs. Heirlooms are basically like purebred dogs. If you breed a labrador to a labrador, you know the resulting puppies are going to be purebred labradors. Plants are the same way. Within their species (like dogs) there are many different varieties (like breeds). An heirloom is a seed that has been kept “pure”. There’s debate as to how long a variety has to be in existence before it can be considered an heirloom, some say 50 years, others 100. Either way, these are varieties of plants that have been around for a long, long time and often have fascinating histories and backstories. 

Hybrid
Hybrid is one of those words that seems to have gotten a bad connotation. Hybrids in and of themselves are not bad. Just like puppies born of a cross between a lab and a Dalmatian aren’t bad. Hybridization has gotten a bad rep mostly because of the way that big corporations have used it as a means of fulfilling a need to be able to ship produce around the world without it going bad. We’re living in a time where we as a people expect and demand produce that’s out of season. When my kids eat strawberries in February, those were definitely not grown anywhere here in Maine or New England even. Those strawberries were most likely grown in another country and shipped here to me in Maine. So, they hybridize the plants. To make them grow bigger and firmer and have a longer shelf life (in addition to pumping them full of who-knows-what.) What we end up with is a product that survives days of shipping, but lacks the flavor of a real, fresh, off the plant strawberry.

All that said, the hybrid seeds that you will buy, are not the same as these over-hybridized plants and veggies we find at the grocery store. Hybrid seeds just means that they’ve been crossed, for interesting flavor or color, or to benefit us the gardener, by breeding plants that are more resistant to pests and diseases. What you grow from a hybrid seed is going to be plenty delicious and nutritious for your family. 

GMO
The hairs on all our collective necks stand up when we hear this one, right? The long and the short of it is this: even though you might see some seeds marketing as “non-GMO”, it baloney. It is illegal for GMO seeds to be bought or sold by regular old gardeners like you or me. GMO farmers sign contracts with the GMO seed companies and are not permitted to re-sell those seeds. So, just know that you are never going to “accidentally” buy GMO seeds in store or online. 

Organic

The term organic really just refers to the way in which those seeds were created. This only matters to farmers who are growing, marketing, and selling their produce as organic. Even though I try to garden as organically as possible – steering clear of pesticides, weed killers, and chemical fertilizers – I don’t worry about whether my seeds are organic or not. I know that the food I’ve grown is clean and for all intents and purposes “organic”. 

How to Get Started:

First thing you need to do is grab a calendar and a an internet search browser and look up the following:

  1. Your Zone: this can be found just by searching for your gardening zone by your zip code. This tells you how cold, on average, your area gets. Seed varieties will tell you what zones each plant is appropriate for.
  2. Your Last Frost Date: the day in the spring in which, on average historically, your area has gotten its last freezing temperatures. This is just an estimate, so I always wait a couple more weeks before my last frost before bringing anything terribly cold sensitive out into the elements. 
  3. Your First Frost Date: the day in the fall/winter when, on average historically, your area has gotten its first freezing temperatures. Again, just an estimate – you could lose the garden earlier than this date, or be lucky enough to have an extra long growing season. 

Ask your search engine how many days are between your last frost date and your first frost date. This is the length, in days, of your growing season. 

Next, on your calendar, mark backwards from your last frost date – marking each week: one week before last frost, two weeks before last frost, three weeks…etc. 

Now you can plan when to start your seeds. Some things like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers need a little longer to get a head start, like 8-10 weeks before the last frost. Whereas other things like squash, melons, and cucumbers grow very quickly and shouldn’t be started until 3-4 weeks before the last frost.

Do not make the mistake of starting all your seeds at the same time and/or starting them too early. Ask me how I know. I once started all my tomatoes in January and was living in a tomato jungle by the time last frost came around. I struggled to keep my seedlings alive and happy as they had far outgrown their containers.

Welcome to the (tomato) jungle!

Also, determine how many plants you really have space for. It’s so easy to go overboard. That same year, I realized after claiming the plants I had space for in my garden, I had 300 extra tomato plants. It was bananas. I gave a lot away, just so they wouldn’t go to waste. So take my word for it, don’t be like me. Start a few extra, just in case, but just a few! 

Getting Dirty

Now you’re ready for honestly the easiest part of starting seeds: actually putting some seeds in the dirt! Here’s the things to consider:

Growing Medium: dirt, duh. But what kind of dirt? The only thing you really need to steer clear of is bags marked as “garden soil”. This is really heavy and dense stuff. No good for seed starting. Again, ask me how I know. You can buy the stuff marketed as Seed Starting Mix, but I have used Potting Mixes and haven’t had any issue. Potting Mix tends to be a little cheaper, but they might have clumps or bigger pieces of wood chips, you’ll just want to break those up and remove them from the top so your little seed can push it’s way up and through the soil. 

Containers: you’ll find plenty of ideas on the internet on how to recycle cups and containers into a seed starting pot. Basically anything that can contain your soil and has good drainage holes in the bottom will work. I’ve had great success starting my tomatoes in red solo cups with a hole poked in the bottom! 

Light: this can be a challenge for those of us in more frigid climates where our days are so short in the winter and the sun rises late and sets early. Because I start so many seeds, I’ve set up this grow station for getting my seedlings started. It’s nothing special, just shelves with regular old shop lights, but it’s enough to get me going. You don’t need special grow lights, you just want to give your seeds as much sunlight as you can, in your sunniest window.

My seed starting set up is nothing special: just some shelves and shop lights.

Water: obviously, plants need water, we all know that. Just keep in mind that the smaller your container, the more frequently you’re going to need to water. Less dirt = less material to hold onto water. Also be careful with peat moss pots or those ones made of recycled paper materials. Sometimes they dry out very quickly. Others will absorb too much water and stay too wet, causing mold issues. Just keep a close eye on these ones. 

I hope this brain dump was helpful to you! These are just a few of the things I have learned in my few short years of gardening. Gardening is an art. It takes practice and you’re always learning something new. Don’t listen to the “rules” out there, even the ones I’ve laid out here. Treat it like an experiment and just give it a try. What works for me in my backyard, might not be what works for you in yours: that’s the beauty of it and what makes it so incredibly personal and special. 

Happy Planting, Friends! 

-Danielle

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