Growing your own plants from seed is very rewarding. With just a few simple supplies and easy-to-follow steps, you only need an hour or so getting your seed starting done.
If you like variety, like to save money and teach your children the full life-cycle of a plant, starting your own seeds is the way to go. I cover more reasons in this post on why seeds are better than buying seedlings.
Seed starting can sound intimidating! All the supplies and tools you think you need, when and where to start seeds and how to take care of them until they are large enough to transplant out.
It’s really not that difficult. Once you have the supplies and some minimal tools, you just start.
So let’s have a look at what you need and how to get started.
Contents of This Article:
Seed Starting Supplies
To get your seed starting done all at one time, make sure you have all the supplies you need at hand.
A lot of nurseries, garden centres and online garden suppliers make it look that you need to go every year and buy expensive containers to start your seeds in. Really all you need is something that can hold seed starting mix and that you can punch a few drainage holes in.
NOTE: make sure to clean any containers you are reusing with hot, soapy water so they are very clean. You can also disinfect them with a mild bleach solution.
- yoghurt containers – the small 8 ounce (250ml) single serving sized ones are great for starting one or two seeds each
- foil take-home containers – ordered too large of a meal at a restaurant? Usually you get your leftovers in a foil container with a cardboard lid
- styrofoam containers – again you might get this from a restaurant for leftovers or as a takeout container from a fast food place
- egg cartons – either the styrofoam ones or cardboard ones (latter is preferable as you can plant these in the ground and they will rot away)
- plastic containers – these also are takeout containers from a deli and they have the bonus of a domed clear plastic lid, so you get a mini greenhouse for nothing!
- milk cartons – just cut off the gabled top
- newspaper rolls – roll up newspaper strips and then crimp the bottom
- plant pots – if you do buy some transplants, keep the pots they come in and reuse them
Yes, you can also buy containers. But with all these free versions above, there really is no need to unless you want everything to look consistent and tidy.
Seed starting mix
There are lots of different mediums to start your seeds in.
Soil is usually the first that comes to mind, however it is not the best medium. Definitely avoid using garden soil or compost. It’s tempting as it’s free, but it can be filled with disease, organisms that will eat your seeds and young plants and possibly weed seeds. It also doesn’t have the light texture that seeds need to sprout in.
The next best thing is a sterilized potting soil. This can however be expensive as it’s often supplemented with fertilizers that your young plants don’t really need (yet).
What has become more popular is a soil-less seed starting mix. This is a purely inert medium that holds moisture but also drains well. You can buy these, however many contain peat moss, which is becoming a concern because of how long it takes peat to form in peat bogs.
I have started to make my own mix. It’s simply even parts of coconut coir (the hairy outer layer from a coconut) and vermiculite mixed. You can buy a coconut coir block and a bag of vermiculite for just a few dollars. Just soak the coconut coir until it breaks apart and then add the vermiculite and mix it up well. No need for fertilizer or any other amendments.
Obviously you will need seeds. Most seeds you can buy for the home garden are GMO-free but you do have the choice of organic and non-organic, heirloom or hybrid. What is the difference?
Organic vs. non-organic: if you’re strictly growing organically, organic seeds are the way to go. There’s no chance then of introducing any residual synthetic chemicals into your garden. You are also supporting growers who are organically growing the vegetables for seeds. However they are more expensive and some seed varieties you may have problems finding.
Heirloom seeds are what are also called open-pollinated seeds. They basically have been saved from generation to generation as open-pollinated seeds that will come true to form if saved and replanted the following year. The plants grown from heirloom seeds tend to fruit gradually, great for the home gardener as you don’t get that big bumper crop all at once that you have to harvest and preserve.
Hybrid seeds on the other hand are cross-bred for the best traits from both parent seeds. They are liked by commercial growers as they are more predictable and some are seedless as well (hybrid tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons). Plus the produce all ripens at the same time, great for a commercial grower but may not so much for the home grower. Unless you are planning on making a big batch of salsa or tomato sauce!
Choosing the seed variety is a bit more tricky as there is such a huge selection. Check out the descriptions in the seed catalogue and see what traits you prefer. Disease resistance, winter storability, taste, size, colour, grows well in your climate, etc. all are variables you can pick from. You can always experiment from year to year to find the right variety as well as a packet of seeds is usually around $5 for quality seed.
Here are some popular suppliers of seeds:
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Renee’s Garden Seeds
- Stokes Seeds
- West Coast Seeds
Note: I have not had experience with all of these companies so can’t vouch for their quality. My main seed supplier is West Coast Seeds as they are local and have varieties that grow well in my climate.
If you have any seed companies you like to use or seed varieties you absolutely love, please leave a comment.
Once your seeds have sprouted and are growing well, you’ll need to feed them some liquid food. Think of them as a human or animal baby that can’t have solid food and needs to drink its mother’s milk or formula.
I recommend using seaweed emulsion. Luckily I live close the the ocean on the west coast of Canada but if you don’t live near the ocean you may find seaweed fertilizer harder to find or super expensive as it’s expensive to ship.
The other alternative is fish fertilizer but definitely don’t use it indoors if that is where you are starting your seeds! Even in my greenhouse it stinks. I would use it a bit later when the plants are starting to get tall and you are close to transplanting them.
Other alternatives are compost or manure “tea”. If you want the no mess way, you can buy “teabags” with dried compost or manure and you literally steep them in water like a regular teabag and use that water to fertilize your plants. Just don’t drink it!
Plant Tags or Markers
You also need some way to mark what you have seeded. There are many options available. You can either buy or make them yourself.
Plastic tags are readily available in large quantities.
You can also make your own markers by cutting up old venetian blind slats (just make sure they don’t contain lead!), cutting up yoghurt containers into long strips, use popsicle sticks or toothpicks with small paper flags.
Use a good permanent marker with a fine tip to write on the markers. I usually just write down the name of the veggie such as broccoli or lettuce, but I know some gardeners will put on the variety and date sown as well.
This is optional, however it is a good idea to make a note of what you have seeded and more importantly when. Just make a list as you seed and later you can even add notes of how everything is doing. You’ll find it handy to have a reference of when seeding early worked and when it didn’t, for instance.
Tools Needed for Seed Starting
You really don’t need many tools, other than your fingers. There are expensive seed sowers but I find those don’t work that well. Here is what you need.
Chopstick – possibly needed to make holes for the seeds but you also have a finger or two that will work just as well
Trowel – to mix up soil or soil-less mix and then to fill your containers
Spray Bottle – to mist your newly seeded containers to avoid having seeds float away
Watering Can – once your seeds are growing, you can water them with a fine rose on a small watering can
When To Start Seeds
When I take care of my seed starting, I tend to do a lot at one time. This is more time efficient and we all could use tips on how to avoid wasting time.
I do two seedings in the spring. The first one is usually around the end of January, early February. Those are all of the greens and brassicas (such as broccoli and cabbage). I then plant those out sometime in March under row cover. But keep in mind that our spring comes early and we have mild temperatures starting in March.
If you have a late start to spring you will want to hold off seeding. You need to work backwards from your last frost date and look at giving your seeds about 4-6 weeks to grow big enough for transplanting right after the last frost date.
I’ve also started pre-sprouting my pea seeds in the greenhouse. Our springs are very wet usually so pea seeds will rot before they have a chance to sprout.
I also do another seeding in late February, early March for the heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes, pepper, eggplant, melons, cucumbers, etc. The goal here is to get good growth on them before May when I plant them out or put them in containers in the greenhouse.
And there is also the fall sowing for winter crops. This I tend to do in July or August.
Again timing depends on your climate and especially the growing zone you are in. And you may have to experiment and find out when it works best for you to start seeds. Keep in mind that every year is different. Sometimes we’ll have a cool spring or slow start to summer which will delay a lot of plants.
Where to Start Seeds
I have the luxury of a greenhouse with lots of counter space to put all my seed trays. The advantage of using a greenhouse is that there is a lot of daylight throughout the day (not always direct). Often you don’t need any supplemental lighting although I do tend to use it if I notice plants are getting spindly.
However if you don’t have a greenhouse, you have a few other options.
These are so easy to build so if you don’t have a greenhouse, build yourself one (there are even kits online which you can just put together without any woodworking skills).
You can use a heating mat to keep your seedlings warmer.
You can start a small amount of seeds on a sunny windowsill or two. You want to just make sure that the seeds get sunlight during most of the day.
Somewhere Indoors with Supplemental Lighting
You can just setup your seeds on a table or counter or somewhere else indoors.
Yes, some people even use their dining room table!
However you then will need to supplement with some type of lighting.
There are many types of grow lights available, either with fluorescent or LED bulbs. Some even are tiered ones on a stand so you can start a lot of seeds in a small footprint. It’ll cost you a bit on electricity.
How to Start Seeds
Now to get seeding! Follow along as my daughter and I have a seeding day and plant a lot of seeds in a short period of time.
1. Fill up the containers
I think here I was using finely sifted compost. I now prefer using a soil-less mix. Fill up the containers, leaving a bit of space at the top (0.5 inch or 1cm is fine).
2. Plant the Seeds
Shake some seeds into your hand or someone else’s hand (like my daughter’s).
For the larger seeds, you can pinch one in your fingers and then pop it on top of the soil. Pressing it in a bit helps to keep it in place. For smaller seeds sprinkle them on the surface of the soil like you would herbs or spices when cooking.
Sprinkle some extra soil on top to just cover the seeds. Better to plant the seeds a bit shallower rather than too deep. You can check the seed packet for what is recommended. Usually smaller seeds are planted very shallow and larger seeds are planted deeper.
3. Mark the Seeds
Before you forget, add a plant tag or marker to each pot so you remember what is planted where.
4. Water the Seeds
This is a crucial step to get right. Too much water will make your seeds float away. Too little water will cause the seeds to not sprout.
I recommend using a spray bottle with water and then you can mist the surface of the soil or soil-less mix until you see some water pooling on the surface or coming out of the drain holes.
Your seeds at this point really just need water, light and relatively warm temperatures.
Spray the surface of the soil or soil-less mix with water from a spray bottle to keep the surface moist. Check daily if you can or at least every two days.
What may also help with moisture retention is to cover the containers with some plastic food wrap and it will also create a mini greenhouse so that they are warmer. Just be sure to remove the wrap before your seedlings grow bigger.
Once the seeds have sprouted, be careful with the water. So long as the pots don’t dry out completely you should be fine. I usually lift the pot or container up to see how much it weighs.
If you water too much you may end up with damping-off disease. Literally your plants will fall over and then you would need to re-sow. It still happens to me sometimes if I get a bit over zealous with the watering.
Once your seeds start actively growing, you can start adding a dilute amount of liquid fertilizer to the water when you start watering them with the watering can.
Seed starting is not that difficult. Yes, you can run into problems, but usually those problems are caused by overwatering or under watering or not enough light. Experiment, learn as you go and have fun seeing those tiny little seedlings poke out of the soil for the first time with the promise of fresh, homegrown food!
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Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC