Growing your own food doesn’t have to be complicated! Today I’m sharing my best tips for starting seeds indoors.
Every spring my mom and I pick a few vegetables to grow. It’s a tradition she started when I was a kid and we were living on the 6th floor of an apartment building.
Obviously, we could only do container gardening back then, but even now we find that there are certain plants we’d rather not grow in the garden. As you can see from the photo above, our eggplants and tomatoes (and a bunch of other stuff not shown) live in their own containers, while the flowers occupy the garden beds.
We don’t usually grow a ton of stuff, just enough to keep ourselves occupied during the warmer months. A few carrots here, maybe a small patch of berries there.
We’ve had excellent luck growing tomatoes and mint. We’ve also had the WORST time trying to grow broccoli (went to flower before gaining any size), Brussels sprouts (huge, hideous, with nothing edible on it) and dill (ravaged by caterpillars!!).
One year in the apartment, we even had a pretty nice avocado plant! Although I don’t think it ever had fruit on it…
This year we decided to try growing more types of herbs and veggies, but we also wanted to try to keep our costs down. Gardening can get expensive when you buy baby plants, or established plants, from a greenhouse. So we opted to spout our own seeds – something that we’ve had minimal success with in the past.
I’ve decided to share what we’ve learned through this process so far, in case it’s at all beneficial to anyone else who might be trying to grow their own food at home.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Click here to read part 2:Growing Your Own Food in Containers: Potting, Watering and Maintaining Edible Plants
Growing Your Own Food from Seeds
When it comes to growing your own food, starting your plants from seeds can be very cost-effective. Seeds are much less expensive than baby plants!
However, it’s important to note that the reason baby plants are pricier because someone else has done the work of germinating and hardening off the plant for you. If it’s your first time starting seeds indoors, start small. Don’t get carried away with too many types of seeds, or you may become overwhelmed.
Figuring Out Which Seeds to Start
If you’re new to growing your own food, start with a few plants that you actually want to eat. Herbs like mint or rosemary are a great place to start as they are fairly hardy and low maintenance plants.
We decided to do a mix of herbs and vegetables in containers this year and started sprouting our seeds in March. Since some seeds take longer to germinate than others, and some seedlings can’t go outside until well after the last frost (i.e. peppers and tomatoes), we continued to start seeds throughout spring.
It’s important to note that not everything should be started indoors. Carrots, beans, and peas go directly into the ground/container outside once the weather is warm enough.
Be sure to check the recommendations on the back of your seed packet to determine when/where to sow the seeds, and when to move seedlings outside.
We sprouted thyme, basil, hot peppers, sweet peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, and bittermelon this year. Most of it did fairly well, but I think next year we’re going to do a bit less.
Pick a Container for Your Seeds
Most hardware stores and garden centres carry seed starting kits. These kits usually have some kind of tray that either holds peat pucks or has room for soil and comes with a lid. These kits are handy, and I own one myself, but they aren’t your only option.
In the photo above you’ll see that my mom and I used empty plastic trays for this batch. Both trays are from the grocery store: the big clear one had croissants in it, and the three small ones had mushrooms in them. It was a perfect little set up though! We put soil in the small trays, added our seeds and labels, misted everything, and then just shut the lid. Once the seeds had sprouted, we simply took the three small containers out of the big one.
Other Container Options:
- Egg cartons
- Cut down plastic milk or juice containers
- Yogurt cups
- Plastic takeout boxes
Make sure you have seed starting mix or peat pucks to use in these containers. You could use a regular potting mix, but I’d recommend using seed starting mix instead. It’s lightweight, encourages fast root growth, and is often sterilized so there’s less risk of disease or bugs. Additionally, you may want to buy organic soil/seed starting mix if that’s important to you.
How to Start Your Seeds
- Fill your container with soil, leaving an inch free on top to allow room for watering.
- Sow seeds according to the package directions. You will usually want to sow 2-3 seeds per pot, in case one of the seeds doesn’t sprout.
- Cover the seeds lightly with seed starting mix and mist until damp (but not soaking wet).
- Cover with plastic wrap (or plastic dome, if using a proper seed tray). This traps the humidity and warmth that the seeds need to germinate.
- Label your containers so you know which plants are in which containers.
- Leave containers in a warm place, out of direct sunlight. Some people like to use the top of the fridge.
- Once the seeds have sprouted, they need a ton of light! Remove the plastic, and place under grow lights or by the sunniest window in your home. These seedlings need 8-12 hours of sunlight a day to thrive. It’s better if your light source is relatively close to the seedlings to prevent them from becoming “leggy” (overly tall with thin stalks).
Caring For Your Seedlings
Once your seeds have germinated and grown into seedlings, you’ll need to start making some adjustments. Weak plants will need to be removed, the plants will need to be moved to bigger containers as they grow, and eventually, you’ll have to start preparing them to move outside.
First, begin by thinning your seedlings. Remove the weakest from each container, and discard them. You should be left with 1 strong plant per container.
When your seedlings grow to about 2-3 inches tall, with multiple sets of leaves, you’ll need to move them to a bigger container. If you started with seed starting mix, you can switch to potting soil now.
When the seedlings are tiny, you’ll want to keep misting them to water them gently, aiming for the soil. As they get bigger, you can switch to an eyedropper.
Overwatering can cause the seedlings to wilt. But also, baby leaves may wilt if the soil is too dry. I usually just stick my finger into the soil to determine if the soil needs water or not. Very dry soil needs water, damp soil does not.
How to Harden Off Your Seedlings
As you get closer to the date that you can move the plants outside, begin to gradually harden off the plant. This requires you to move the plants outside, in a shady area protected from wind for an increasing amount of time each day. Over 10-14 days, you’re going to place all the seedlings outside for an hour or two, not in direct sunlight. Every day, increase the amount of time that they spend outside until they can stay out all day.
This is where I really felt that we had too many plants this year. The photo above shows about half of the plants we had. I stuck them on the deck rail that day because it was damp and overcast out, and I didn’t want to deal with moving them further from the door.
The process of dragging every plant outside and back in again was tiresome. I did eventually start corralling the smaller containers into large baskets and trays so I could move more plants at a time, but it was still not fun.
Just as a side note, the orange tray came out to get sprayed for bugs that day, the plants were too tiny to need to be hardened off yet.
Once the plants are hardened off, be sure to set them in a sunny, partly sunny, or shady spot, depending on the seed packet recommendations. The nice thing about planting in containers is that if your plant isn’t getting enough sun, or is getting too much sun, you can just pick it up and move it somewhere else. Keep an eye on your plants to see how they’re doing as the weeks go by, and adjust their location as needed.
Dealing with Bugs
We got a bad case of fungus gnats from using an infected bag of potting soil (from a very popular brand). They are technically harmless, but they are also a total nuisance!
We had to spray the plants every few days with a mixture of water, dish soap, and neem oil to get rid of them. We also used sticky strips to catch whatever was already flying around.
Also, try to avoid overwatering as fungus gnats love wet soil and that can just make your situation so much worse.
In my next blog post, I’ll talk about re-planting baby plants into larger pots, give tips for watering, discuss fertilizer, and more.
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