I love starting seedlings indoors and experiencing the whole growing cycle. Seeing the first leaves sprout is so exciting. Its extremely satisfying to harvest produce in the fall, and to enjoy the beauty of flowers both in the garden and in vases in the house, all grown from plants that you babied along from a tiny seed.
- which vegetables or herbs cost a lot of money in the grocery store, yet are easy to grow; and
- which vegetables taste much better when grown yourself. Nothing compares to a tomato picked at the peak of ripeness, or to corn picked and shucked while the water is on to boil;
- which herbs do you use most when cooking (don’t forget you can dry them too).
For many plants, like peas or poppies, its easy to save your own seed, but you can’t be sure exactly what you will get if other varieties are around for cross pollination. This is especially true if you have grown hybrid seeds. Because hybrid seeds are produced from cross pollinating two different varieties of plants (usually one supreme performer and one ordinary old tried and true variety), you can’t expect the seeds resulting from them to produce the same results, as they could take after one parent or another. For this reason, hybrid seed is best repurchased each year.
Don’t forget to start seeds for your flower containers too. I make sure I start a lot of trailing seeds as well, so I can plant of my own hanging baskets at a tiny fraction of the cost of buying the seedlings or buying the planted baskets.
When considering which flower seeds to grow, I consider:
- which flowers I want for my hanging baskets and containers, as I grow a lot of these and they can take an enormous quantity of plants;
- which flowers attract bees – I always plant flowers such as Bachelor’s buttons and nasturtium in my vegetable garden to attract bees, and for the beauty they add to the vegetable garden;
- which flowers I want for vases in the house – baby’s breath is relatively easy to grow, and also consider some scented flowers for your vases like heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescents) or stock (Matthiola incana) to intersperse in your vases. The most highly scented flowers are often rather inconspicuous but you only need to tuck a few into a vase to bring the scent indoors, or add to some containers on your deck so you can smell them when outdoors.
- varying heights of flowers I want to grow in the flower gardens, including edging plants, ground cover, and medium and tall flowers;
- visibility of stems – some flowers are beautiful, but on rather unattractive base plants, like globe thistle, yet look stunning when medium height plants grow in front of them;
- whether I want a large patch of plants, or a small quantity – flower gardens look stunning with one long winding display of poppies or phlox or any like kind of flower all blooming at the same time in a large area, rather than just one individual kind of each plant dotted here and there. Flowers like sweet peas, grown in a long massed row up fences or trellises are another example of this. Often flower seeds are available in large sized packages for such displays.
A Few of My Favorite Seeds
My #1 favorite seed is the Brandywine tomato – no other tomato compares in taste! Aside from that, I love growing Genovese basil for its big leaves, mini bell peppers because they’re so cute in pickled pepper jars, and Crackerjack marigolds to attract pollinators in the vegetable garden. Here are a few of the wide variety of flowers and vegetables that I have grown, and grown to love, for a variety of reasons (click picture for details):
When to Start Seeds
When I get my seed packets in the winter, I arrange them chronologically by date as to when I need to start them, i.e. those needing 8 weeks to grow will be kept together, then those needing 4-6 weeks to grow, and so on, with the final group being those which are directly seeded in the garden. This way I tend to have several kinds to start every week or two, and keep doing new ones as their dates come up. I order my seeds by the beginning of February to make sure I have plenty of time for those requiring a bit of extra time.
Please see this awesome guide for when to start your seeds depending on where you live: 2014 Best Spring Planting Dates for Seeds
Rather than start my seeds in small individual pots, I fill a big flat with seedlings (several of them by the time I’m done planting all my seedlings in Spring). Large flats filled with seedlings hold water much better than flats holding individual smaller containers. I start mine mostly in typical black flats, in rows with labels on the end of each row stating which kind of seed is in that row. Sometimes I have several rows of the same seed. For seedlings which have deeper roots like tomatoes, or for plants which have grown a lot and need transplanting, I often use deep cat litter trays with little holes poked in the bottom for drainage. You can expect to transplant your seedlings at least once to give them space, unless you plant your seeds quite far apart. If you need to grow your trays indoors, you can put large seedling trays or boot trays under the trays of seedlings to prevent messes. I always wash any reused containers well in a bleach solution.
I fill my containers loosely with seed starter mix, water it, let the water absorb for ten minutes or so, then top up the soil to almost the top of the container. I mist that and give it a few more minutes to absorb water from the soil below. Then I plant my seeds and label them, covering lightly with soil unless otherwise indicated on the package. I always press the soil gently with my palms so the seed makes contact with the soil. Then I cover the black trays with plastic domes, and place plastic loosely over other types of trays until the seedlings sprout. Some plant seeds, often the hot weather ones like tomatoes and peppers, like a little extra warmth in the room to germinate. If you find your seeds are very slow to germinate, you can place the tray on a heat mat to encourage germination, or on the top of your refrigerator if you have space there.
Once the seedlings begin to sprout, remove the lid and place the tray about 4 inches under a grow light or cool florescent tubes. In my experience a sunny window doesn’t provide a strong enough light to grow seedlings that will be even close to the quality you can buy in a nursery; rather, they tend to be thin, tall, pale and weak. Many grow lights provide extra heat, which helps the remaining seeds continue to germinate. I start out with a grow light bulb in a goose neck lamp when I just have a few trays, and progress to fluorescent lighting as I get more trays. As the plants grow taller, don’t forget to keep raising the height of the grow light, and try to rotate the flats so the outer ones don’t end up leaning toward the lights.
Watering and Fertilizing
Watering is one of the most important steps of growing seedlings. If your seedlings are accidentally allowed to severely dry out, they may recover, but fail to thrive from that point forward. It requires dedication.
I use a good ergonomic watering can with a detachable rose for misting when I water the unsprouted trays. Once the seedlings have sprouted, I add a very low does of starter fertilizer to each can of water, increasing the amount as the plants get larger. If you use a seed starter mix that doesn’t already contain fertilizer, you need to add more in your regular watering. Some people prefer a larger dose weekly. When the seedlings get quite large, it may become necessary to water twice a day. Always be careful not to over water.
In order to prevent damping off, a condition where the plant can wither and bend over and die due to a fungal condition, I take some precautions. Aside from washing all plant containers in a bleach solution, I make sure I use proper seed starting soil, which is a lighter mix than all purpose planting soil. I also keep my seedlings a bit on the dry side.
Good air circulation also is necessary for seedlings to thrive Running a small fan where you grow your seedlings can also help prevent damp off. When I grew seedlings in a greenhouse, on nice days I always propped the door open to get the plants used to a natural breeze. The resistance to air flow helps strengthen the stems too.
As the seedlings grow, it is often necessary to transplant them to more evenly distribute them and to provide more room for growing. Sometimes you can just readjust them a bit, carefully, in the rows to move some growing too closely into spots where no seeds germinated. I like growing my seeds a bit closely together and giving them one transplant about half way through their growing cycle, which gives the roots time to re-establish in their new pots prior to their final transplant into the garden.
In the greenhouse, once plants get larger, I would switch to watering with a coil wand, with fertilizer attached in a dispenser. Now there are retractable hoses I’m interested in acquiring for my deck and small front garden for use in watering containers in the summer.
Hardening Off Before Planting
This stage of starting seedlings is tedious. However, it is one of the most important stages. Just as a parent would never let a baby play in the sunshine all day, having never been exposed to the sun, nor can we put our tender young seedlings directly out into the wind and sun and cold. Before you move the plants from your warm home to the cool garden, its necessary to get them used to being outdoors. On a warm afternoon about a week before planting, you can start by moving the seedlings outdoors to a shady, sheltered location for an hour or so. This gets them slowly used to the brighter (yet diffused) natural light and breeze which they will get after planting. Do this each day, gradually increasing the time they are out by an hour or two a day and moving them into more direct sunlight in a location more exposed to wind. On the night before planting they can be left outside overnight.
Transplanting to the Garden or Containers
One of my favorite parts of Spring is planting my little seedlings into the garden, and filling baskets and containers with flower seedlings. They look so tiny when you first plant them, but it sure doesn’t take long to have them fill out beautifully.
Your seed packets will give you the information about when you can move them into the garden, or see the link below. Plants like pansies and snapdragons can take a lot more cold than tender plants like impatiens or tomatoes or peppers.
Please see this link for best dates to transplant in your area: Best Planting Dates for Transplants (by Region)
When its time to put the plants in the garden or to pot up your containers, water the seedlings a half hour or so before transplanting. Gently pry them out of the soil with a scoop or your hands, or loosen them from their container, and press the plant firmly but gently into the new soil, giving the soil around them a little pressure to adhere the soil to the roots, and water in well. Mulching with compost will give the plants added nutrients and reduce weeding time.