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A Seed-Starting Primer

March 18, 2011

I swear I have Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I want to love the snow and cold the way I did when I was a little kid, dressed up to the nines in snowpants so thick I could barely move, but I don’t.  At least I’ve learned this year there is one outdoor activity I love during the winter, snowshoeing.

But the minute a little spring-like weather comes drifting my way, the way it has this week, all of a sudden I perk up, and visions of my garden in mid-summer, and long hikes in the Adirondacks fill my mind.  I can’t wait!!

I’ve FINALLY felt like getting organized for this year’s garden.  Lucky for me, it’s not too late.  We have so many seeds saved from the last two years that we only needed to buy 2 seed packets this year- tomatillos and white beans.  Given the amount of tomatillos we grew last year I can’t believe we didn’t save any seeds! We also ate all the white beans we grew last year instead of saving some for planting this year.  Oops.

Once again, we bought directly from Hudson Valley Seed Library.  I love that it’s local, and that many, if not all, of their seeds are perfect for my area.  They KNOW what will grow well here.

Do you want to start a garden or container garden this year?  It’s easy! And now is the time to start, if you live in the northern half of the country and want to grow any veggies from scratch this year.

Chelle’s Seed Starting Primer:

1) Check out what Hardiness Zone you live in to determine the last frost date for your area. If you plant outside too early, chances are the frost will kill your baby plants!

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Here in the Capital District area of NY where I live, is Zone 5.

2) Do you want to grow from seed, or start with seedlings?

If you want to grow from seed, you’ll need start a few months to a few weeks ahead of your last frost date and gather a some supplies to do so.  At a minimum, you will need the following things:

  • Light(s)
    Any type of bulb will do, it does not need to specifically be a grow-light.
  • A timer for those lights
    Especially if you’re not going to be around to turn them off and on, a timer is necessary to save on electric costs but ensure your budding plants get the light they need.
  • Small containers to start growing in.
    Cardboard egg cartons are great for this!
  • Bigger containers
    To transfer to later if needed.
  • Sterile seed-starting mixture
    In which to plant the seeds.
  • A spray bottle
    To fill with water for misting the seedlings.
  • Some plant markers
    Knowing what you planted and where is ever so helpful.

Here's the little stand with light that K built for us last year.

3) Think about what kind of veggies you want to grow. Starting out, most people enjoy growing herbs, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and lettuce.  All of those can be grown in containers as well. But there are so many different kinds of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and yes, lettuce.  Where to start?

4) Buying seeds. You can find seeds just about anywhere, in your local grocery store, Lowe’s or Home Depot, local nurseries, etc.  For me, it’s important that my seeds are organic, non-hybrid, and non-chemically-treated.

Why non-hybrid (open pollinated) seeds?  Check out this link to learn more about their importance. Among some of the reasons are:

  • Better Nutrition – Commercial produce lacks nutrition, research has shown.
  • Sustainable Gardening – Saving seeds is only possible with open-pollinated seeds
  • Economic Security – In recessions and depressions, FOOD IS ECONOMIC SECURITY
  • Food Supply Independence – If food supplies are challenged, home gardening is freedom.
  • Crop Diversity – Participate in saving the original strains from extinction
  • You can scroll down this list to find local seed companies near you that grow their seeds organically and are open pollinated.

    There are several well known national seed companies that you can feel confident in using.  Just a few are:

    Seed Savers Exchange (located in Iowa)

    FEDCO Seeds (located in Maine)

    Ferry Morse Seed Company (located in Kentucky)

    Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (located in Missouri)

    Seeds of Change (located in New Mexico)

    Dive into their online seed catalogs to determine just what kind of tomato, pepper or lettuce (or any other kind of veggie) you’d like to buy!

    5) Starting seeds

    Now that you know your hardiness zone, you can look up when to start your plants from seed based on your zone.  You can check here to find out.  Also, this website allows you to input your location to find out approximately when you should start certain veggies from seed, like tomatoes or peas or lettuce.

    Most seeds I would start growing in small containers, but certain ones, like peas or lettuce or spinach, I would choose a large container that will serve as my vegetable bed for the season and plant directly when the time is right, instead of transplanting dozens of tiny containers later on.

    To start your seeds, use a sterile mix specifically for this purpose.  This will likely be soil-less, so there is no worry about diseases killing your baby plants.  After a few weeks, a weak fertilizer will need to be applied, since without soil, there is also not much in the way of nutrients for the plant either.

    Plant 2-3 seeds in each container, to ensure at least one germinates.  If all of them do, don’t worry! Wait to see which one gets their first real leaves (not the first, seed leaves) and snip the other(s) at the base of the plant instead of pulling them out.

    Spray the seed-starting mixture with your water bottle to ensure the mix is damp, but not soaking wet.  You don’t want to pour water from a watering can directly onto newly started seeds as you may dislodge the seeds you just planted AND/OR cause mold to start to grow from too much water.

    Make sure your plant light is on for at least 14-16 hours a day.  This is why you can’t just leave seeds by a windowsill, there’s just not enough light for them at this stage.  This is also why a timer works so well, you don’t have to worry too much about forgetting to put the light on and off.

    Don’t forget to spray the planted seeds daily and keep the mixture damp!

    It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks (or in my case months) for your seeds to germinate and grow.  Herbs tend to grow the quickest, whereas the tomatillos we grew last year from seed took months! (we wondered if they got enough water in the end). Be patient, and this summer you will be enjoying produce grown by your own hand.

    One Comment leave one →
    1. April 16, 2011 1:20 pm

      I SO want to have my own garden going this summer- maybe you can give me some tips on how to make this possible? :-) Nice meeting you last night, by the way!

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