There is nothing better than sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night with a brand new seed catalogue that just came in the mail. Even better, a good half dozen or more! It seems this year is going to see even more people planting than the previous. Last year, due to COVID, more people were home than ever before. Pair that with unfounded worries over food security and it was a great time to be in the seed business. Many online retailers simply were “out of stock” with just about everything. I thought this year would be a little different with the rollout of the vaccine;  apparently people like their newfound hobby. Although stock seems to be better this year, I am still seeing “out of stock” on some favorites. I guess people will be planting again. The good part is that the retailers seem to be ready for this, not getting caught off guard like last year. I hope this trend continues, as one of the most environmentally friendly things we can do is grow our own food and support local farmers for the rest. Don’t forget, when we buy seed we are helping to support agriculture as well. Take a look at where the seeds come from – you might be surprised how many companies are located near you. 

Some ‘Amethyst’ green bean and ‘Mammoth’ sunflower seeds waiting to be planted this spring. Photo by mrl2021

So the question becomes, why would someone want to start their own flowers and vegetables from seed? The reasons are many. For some, it is a hobby, and a way to get into gardening before the outside is ready to cooperate. For others, it is a bit of security and a stress reducer, as they know they will have the plants they want this spring. It sometimes can be a cost savings, although by the time you buy the seed, the potting equipment, lights, other supplies, and electricity, you probably will not save much. Of course, if you continue this tradition year after year, it probably does save money in the long run. For me, it is a nice way to get the varieties that I want when they are not commercially available, and that is priceless!

The first thing to know about seed starting is that timing is everything. If you start too early, your plants get tall, fall over, and may run out of key nutrients. When you go to plant them, they are already so stressed and nutrient deprived and may not fare well. On the flip side, if you plant too late, your plants will be tiny with a poorly developed root system. As a result, they may not be able to withstand the stress of transplanting. Check your last frost date and read the information on the seed packets or seed catalogue and mark your calendar. You also will need to adjust from year to year depending on your lighting type and intensity. Each crop will have its own timing, so what works for one may not work for all. In addition, not all plants can tolerate transplanting.  Beans, squash, and cucumbers, for example, are best sown directly in the garden. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are less sensitive and can handle the transplanting process much better. If you must start delicate plants indoors, I would recommend using peat pots which can be placed directly into your garden, and will break down during the growing season. I usually rip some holes in the pots before planting, being careful not to disturb or break up the roots.  

In order to germinate, seeds need the proper moisture and temperature. It is a little like the story of Goldilocks and the porridge. Although the parameters are not as narrow, they do need to be in the right range. Germination can be sped up with a heat mat underneath. These heat mats, however, are pricey and need to be used with a controller to set the proper temperature. Even without a heat mat, seeds will germinate fine at room temperature (it will just take longer).  Don’t forget to take into account the time it will take for the seeds to germinate when you are estimating how far ahead to start your seeds. One other consideration is the size of the container you will germinate the seeds in. Although you can use pots, you might run out of space rather quickly. Many people prefer to use plug trays. There are different sizes for different sized seeds and growth requirements of the specific crop. Standard sizes include 128, 72, 50, etc. These refer to the number of plants you can fit into the tray. For really large seeds or large plants, you will need to switch from plug trays to actual pots. Plants must be sized to the appropriate sized plug or pot. Too big and the soil will fall apart when transplanting, too small and the plant will have stunted root growth and/or dry out too quick. Use any commercially available seed starting medium to fill your plug trays or pots. In addition, seeds may just be sprinkled into an open tray for sprouting and transplanted on from there.

A 72 plug tray. Photo by mrl2021

The plug trays will need to be kept in some kind of basin that holds water if you are starting them in the house. Be careful when purchasing/ordering these bottom trays so they do not have holes in them. Greenhouse growers prefer the holes so the water can drain freely. In the home, that could ruin the table or counter the trays are sitting on. You must be careful not to overwater.  Soggy seed starting medium leads to a plethora of diseases. One of the most common ones is “damping off” where your plants seem to rot right where the stem goes into the soil. Good air circulation and watering only when necessary can prevent a lot of trouble. Generally, the seed starting medium only needs to be kept moist during the germination process. Once the plants are up and growing, allow some drying between waterings to prevent many diseases.

A solid bottom tray with no holes. Photo by mrl2021.

After the seeds sprout, you need to give them light. The ambient room light will certainly not be enough, nor will placing the plants near a window (in most cases). Fortunately, it is easy and relatively cheap to provide lights for the plants. A simple old-school four-foot shop light is all that one needs. You’ll want to hang the lights a few inches above the growing plants. For bulbs, you can use one “cool white” and one “warm white” light bulb. If you are willing to spend some more money, you could buy a specialty plant grow bulb and a daylight deluxe light bulb. All of these bulbs have different spectral outputs (different colors of light) and are beyond the scope of this blog topic. Simply put, plants need lots of red and blue light to grow well. You can even find special LED plant lights with blue and red LEDs. These fixtures are much more expensive, but the bulbs are long lasting and do not lose output like the fluorescent ones. Either way, as your plants grow, you can raise the lights above them to accommodate their height. If you have different types of plants, some may grow faster than others. Do your best and develop a method that works for you. Follow the advice given here and enjoy the process! This should be an exciting and fun adventure. In a few months it will be time to put in the cool weather crops, so if you haven’t purchased your seeds yet, now is the time. Many local garden centers as well as big box stores carry a large selection of seeds. There are many mail order companies out there as well. The best part is, once you order from them, they will send you a catalogue the next year.  Not all companies are the same, and some specialize in certain types of plants. A word of warning – it is easy to imagine yourself planting away in the spring garden from your favorite chair during the winter. Buy what you can reasonably plant in a season, otherwise you may find yourself with a lot of leftover seeds. Use the information in the catalogue to figure out how many seeds you need for your space. Unused seed may germinate the next year, but they must be stored properly. Different plants have different lengths of time the seeds are viable. 

Fluorescent lights (daylight deluxe and plant grow bulbs) set up over houseplants overwintering in cellar. Photo by mrl2021.

Hopefully this post has inspired you to try starting some flowers and vegetables from seed. I recommend starting off small, with only one or two types or varieties of plant. Tomatoes are probably the most forgiving of our garden plants and are a great place to start.  As always, I recommend a soil test before planting out for best gardening results! 

Matt Lisy