Now, you may wonder why you should start plants from seeds indoors when you can purchase plant starts. Honestly, because it’s therapeutic! It is food for the soul to plant a tiny seed and watch the abundance of food or flowers that a seed can produce.
There are other practical reasons to start plants from seed in the comfort of your garage, kitchen, or greenhouse. Firstly, some seeds will not germinate when planted directly into the ground. Also, starting seeds indoors allows an impatient gardener like me to get a head start with plants that require a long growing season such as tomatoes and peppers. Additionally, starting plants from seeds can be more economical in the long run. Plus, there are many more seed options for plant varieties than transplants available for purchase at the local nurseries and hardware stores. Another therapeutic benefit is when it’s too cold to play outside, starting seeds makes you feel like you’re still gardening!
Let’s start with the back of the seed packet; the most pertinent information is listed there. That tiny print that may require a magnifying glass to read indicates if the seed can be transplanted. If the packet states “do not transplant”, don’t, unless you have time and seeds to probably waste. Some plants, such as bachelor buttons or carrots, just want their roots to be left alone once they’re planted. However, there are seeds like delphinium and lisianthus that prefer, or in some ways demand, to be started indoors, in a controlled environment. These prima donnas need to be pampered with the right temperature and lighting. They prefer not to experience the outdoors until they are old enough and strong enough to stand up for themselves. Other information also found on the packet includes light requirements, planting depth, and plant spacing. Some packets will list how many days to maturity or bloom. That’s my favorite part, how long do I have to wait until I see a return on my investment of time and money? I like that question answered up front whenever possible.
However, don’t let starting plants from seeds intimidate you. The process and equipment can be as simple or elaborate as your personality or budget prefers. In some cases, a sun-filled windowsill may do the trick to get your seeds started. Other options include using heating mats designed for seed starting and grow lights. There are many seed starting kit options available online. A DIY setup was my preference. It includes a stainless-steel rack on wheels, heating mats, and a variety of grow lights that can be adjusted up or down as needed.
Whatever style of seed starting station you decide is best for you, an important practice is to always use clean containers and a sterile planting medium. Peat pots are a good option because the entire pot may be planted into the ground; but before planting, tear off the rim of the pot because the ridge inhibits water from spreading throughout the root area of the plant. Another option for starting seeds is soil blocking which requires less space to start seeds than containers. The blockers are available in a variety of sizes and the size of the seed dictates the size of the block. It is an efficient way to start hundreds of seeds in a minimal amount of space. Lisa Mason-Zeigler is a successful flower farmer and has free video series available on her website on soil blocking. I found the videos very helpful!
When to start the seeds? Again, the packet information is key and will state how many weeks before the first or last frost to start the seeds. What does first and last frost mean? Here in North Texas the first anticipated date in fall that frost will be on the ground is usually between November 16th and December 1st and the last spring frost day can be expected between March 1st and March 16th. However, this is Texas, and you probably already know that the weather is unpredictable. To help determine when to start your seeds, if the packet indicates 6 weeks before the last or first frost, then on a calendar count back six weeks from your first or last frost date based on the Texas AgriLife chart link below to find the date that you need to start your seeds. If your date is one or two weeks overdue, don’t let that stop you from starting the seeds anyway. I have been late planting for as long as three weeks with wonderful success.
Whichever potting or seed starting mix you decide to use, it is helpful to add water to the mix first and then fill the containers. There are usually instructions on the back of the package to determine the ratio amounts. If you don’t mix the growing medium and water first, the seed may float to the top of the water. When sowing your seeds, be sure to only plant as deep as the packet indicates. If you plant too deeply the seed may not come up. If the instructions are to surface sow, do just that. Sprinkle seeds on the surface of the potting mix and lightly press the seeds to ensure the seed makes good contact with the soil. Use a spray bottle filled with water to gently moisten the soil and seeds.
It will be necessary to check your plant babies at least once a day but that won’t be difficult for you to remember because, like all babies, you’ll want to check on them multiple times per day, talk to them, admire their growth, and ensure all of their needs are met.
The first set of rounded leaves are cotyledons and are not considered true leaves. The next set of leaves will look like the mature leaves of the plant. At this point, the plants may be given a diluted, liquid fertilizer, such as fish or seaweed emulsions. Be sure to check the label for proper feeding amounts.
Once the plant has grown a set or more of true leaves, they are ready to transition to the outdoors. But wait, don’t plant them out yet! Instead, each day set the plants outside out of direct sun beginning with an hour or so per day to help avoid transplant shock. Increase the amount of time the plants are outside until they’re able to remain outside all day without any adverse reactions. Now they are ready to plant into the ground. Enjoy!