Are you wondering how to plant seeds for your garden? Today I'm sharing my best tips for starting seeds indoors and outdoors.
Starting your plants from seeds can be a rewarding experience! There's nothing quite as satisfying as planting a tiny seed, watching it grow, and then enjoying the rewards of your efforts.
However it can also be a very frustrating experience, and I don't want you to feel that! With a bit of information, you can plant your seeds knowing that you've given them the best chance of growing well.
How to Plant Seeds
There's a lot of information on seed starting here, so I've broken down this article into sections. Click on a link to jump to a specific section, or scroll through and read everything in order.
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. Our eggplants and tomatoes, for example, live in their own containers. Meanwhile, flowers and some of my berries 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 (it bolted), Brussels sprouts (grew too slow) 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, so I had to learn how to plant seeds properly.
Gardening can get expensive when you buy baby plants, or established plants, from a greenhouse. So we opted to grow as many things as possible from 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.
Growing Your Own Food from Seeds
While the principles of how to plant seeds in this article can apply to any kind of seed, I'm going to be focusing on starting seeds for edible plants.
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 (a.k.a. seedlings).
However, it’s important to note that the reason seedlings are pricier is because someone else has done the work of germinating and hardening off the plant for you.
If this is your first time starting seeds indoors, start small. Don’t get carried away with too many types of seeds, or you may become overwhelmed.
If you're not sure what to plant, my list of the easiest vegetables to grow from seed might be helpful to you.
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. There's no point in planting eggplant if no one in your family will eat it!
Pick a couple of vegetables that you like, and maybe an herb or two that you always find yourself buying at the grocery.
I love growing my own herbs because it saves me money! A packet of seeds costs less than a plastic package of herbs from the store, and once it grows I can just snip what I need whenever I want some.
Herbs like mint or rosemary are fairly hardy and low maintenance plants if that's something that appeals toyou. Mint is honestly so hard to kill that some people even consider it to be an invasive plant.
My mom and I 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.
Tip: If you live in Canada or the United States, head over to the planting calendar page on The Old Farmer’s Almanac website and get the planting calendar for your area. This will help you figure out when to start particular kinds of seeds indoors and outdoors.
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 we may make some adjustments to our selection next year.
If you're looking for places to order seeds, or for Canadian brands to support, you can check out my list of where to buy seeds online here.
How to Plant Seeds Outdoors
Planting your seeds directly into the soil is easier than starting them indoors. You don't have to worry about hardening off the plants, and there no risk of shock from transplanting.
Also, not all edible plants can tolerate being started indoors anyhow. Carrots, for example, are prone to becoming deformed when transplanted. Beans and peas also go directly into the ground or a container outside, once the temperature outside reaches a certain range.
Be sure to check the recommendations on the back of your seed packet to determine how to plant your seeds. The packet will usually tell you how deep to sow the seeds, how far apart to space them, and how long they will take to germinate under ideal conditions.
There may also be a warning about what temperature to sow the seeds at. Some plants, like green beans, cannot be sown into cold soil or they will rot. It can be difficult to determine the temperature of your soil, so you might want to invest in an inexpensive soil thermometer to take the guesswork out of the process.
Radishes, carrots and peas love cool weather, so they're usually the first plants to be sown outdoors for the spring growing season.
If you're practicing companion planting, you can sprinkle your radish and carrot seeds into the same container and cover them lightly with soil. Water them lightly to keep the soil moist until they germinate, and then thin them to the package recommendations. The radishes will grow and be harvested before the carrots need the space, which is pretty cool!
Protecting Seedlings from Frost
Let's say you've already directly sown your seeds and then you find out the temperature outside is going drop drastically. What do you do?
You can drape your seedlings with clear plastic or garden fleece to help trap the heat around your germinating seeds or seedlings. Or, you can create an inexpensive cloche by cutting off the top of a 1-litre soda bottle and placing it over the plant. Leave the cap off for ventilation.
Be sure to check your overnight temperatures, because while it might be nice during the day, your seedlings will benefit from being covered at night if the temperatures are expected to dip significantly.
Alternative Way of Planting Seeds Outdoors: Winter Sowing
Winter sowing is kind of a hybrid between starting your seeds indoor and planting your seeds outside.
In this method, seeds are sown when it's still cold outside into clear plastic containers (like empty juice bottles). The container creates a micro-climate that is warmer than the air outside, so the seeds will sprout sooner in the container than they would in the exposed soil.
This allows you to get a jump-start on the growing season, while still being able to avoid the hardening off process. Stick to cold-hardy crops for best results.
How to Plant Seeds Indoors
Again, 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.
- In a large container, add just enough water to a seed starting mix to saturate it. The soil should be damp not soaking. If your using just plain soil, you may want to add in a starter fertilizer.
This year I'm using the Pro-Mix Organic Seed Starting Mix to start my seeds because it already has fertilizer built in, and it's supposed to be bug-free (unlike the bug-ridden potting mix I ended up with last year).
- Fill your container with soil, leaving about 1 inch free on top to allow room for watering.
- Use the tip of a pencil or chopstick to poke holes into the soil. Alternatively, you can buy a dibbler (but it does basically the same thing as the pencil).
- 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 more seed starting mix and mist until damp (not soaking wet).
- Cover with plastic wrap (or a 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 what plants are in which containers.
- Leave containers in a warm place, out of direct sunlight unless the seed packet instructions tell you otherwise. Most seeds germinate best in the dark, but some seeds need sunlight to germinate, so check the instructions for your seeds.
- While you're waiting for the seeds to germinate, be sure to remove the plastic lid/dome every day and dry off any condensation. I like to leave the lid off for a bit as well. Too much condensation around your seeds can cause mould to build up, which you don't want.
- Once the seeds have sprouted, they will need a ton of light!
Remove the plastic, and place under grow lights or by the sunniest window in your home. Most seedlings need 8-12 hours of sunlight a day to thrive.
If you're using a grow light, it needs to be relatively close to the seedlings to prevent them from becoming “leggy” (overly tall with thin stalks). How close your lights need to be will depend on what kind of grow light you have. You can learn more about using grow lights here.
BONUS: I like to run a fan near my seedlings about a week before I start hardening them off. This helps to get them adjusted to wind. The seedlings will dry out more quickly if you use a fan though, so be sure to keep an eye on their moisture levels.
Picking a Container for Your Seeds
Most hardware stores and garden centres carry seed starting kits. You can sometimes find them at the dollar store, too. 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
- Cardboard cups
- Cut down plastic milk or juice containers
- Yogurt cups
- Plastic takeout boxes
I encourage you to use what best suits your needs. If you're trying to stick to a budget, use what's available to you. If you're worried about damaging the plants when transplanting them, use a container that will break down when it gets wet (like the cardboard cups).
Do make sure you have seed starting mix or peat pucks to use in these containers, though. You could use a regular potting mix, but I’d recommend using a 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.
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 remaining plants will need to be moved to bigger containers, and eventually, you'll have to start preparing them to go 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 or attract fungus gnats (more on this below). 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, but this year I've invested in a soil moisture meter which I love!
If you don't have a meter, stick your index finger all the way into the soil. If it's dry, water the plant. If it's damp or wet, check again the next day.
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, that 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 ended up with 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, which works really well.
Try to avoid overwatering your plants as fungus gnats love wet soil and that can just make your situation so much worse.
I hope you found this article on how to plant seeds useful!
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