Most beginning gardeners and many old pros buy tomato plants, pepper plants, and other vegetable plants at the nursery or feed store to set out in their gardens. This is a real time saver and bedding plants are not super expensive, so it’s an easy way to get a garden going. But, if you get deeply involved in gardening, and especially if you save your own heirloom seeds; you are going to eventually want to learn how to germinate your on plants in seed pots. There are several advantages to doing this. It is a little cheaper than buying plants (as long as you don’t factor in your labor), it enables you to start plants from seeds that you have saved, it allows you to raise varieties of plants that are not readily available at most stores, it’s good practice for post meltdown survival gardening, and it’s fun. Following is a brief tutorial on how I start plants for my garden. Please note that this is not the last word on starting plants. There are many different ways to do this, one being just as good as the other. This is just the method that happens to work for me. To know when to start your seeds just look up the outdoor planting date in your area and start your seeds six to eight weeks before this date. So, let’s get started.
First you will need seed. This can be seed that you have saved or seed that you have bought. If it is seed that you have saved it must be non-hybrid. If you are buying the seed, it can be any kind; although I always recommend non-hybrid, heirloom seed so that you can save seed for the next growing season.
You will need pots to start the seeds in. There are many different kinds of pots to choose from. You can use peat pots, ceramic pots, terracotta pots, plastic pots, or little plastic multi-pot seed trays. I have even seen people who make their own origami pots out of old newspaper. The only thing that I would recommend about pots is that you use the smallest ones possible. A one or two inch pot is plenty big enough and it will make your potting soil go a lot farther.
You can make your own potting soil but I usually buy mine. A thirty pound bag of potting soil will last me three or four years and the cost is negligible, just make sure that you buy good quality potting soil. Cheap potting soil will be full of uncomposted bark and sticks the size of firewood. I buy Miracle Grow potting soil which is pretty fine and seems to work well. As soon as I open a bag of potting soil, I transfer the contents to a lidded five-gallon bucket. This keeps the potting soil from drying out and it is easier to use than digging around in a semi-torn up plastic bag.
Start preparing your pots for planting a day or two before you seed them. Fill each pot with potting soil and press it down firmly, then top it off with some more potting soil and press that down.
When your pots are all full, water them gently but thoroughly and allow to sit over night. I use an old vegetable oil bottle with holes punched in the top for watering. This tends to trickle the water onto the soil so that you don’t wash your seeds up after you’ve planted them.
The next day you can plant your seeds. I use a short piece of ¼” dowel rod to poke the holes. I make two or three holes, about a quarter inch deep in each pot.
I drop one seed in each hole.
Then I carefully push the soil in on top of each seed and press the soil down gently with my finger tip.
Here’s a friendly piece of advice: make all the holes and put seeds in all of them before you start covering any of the seeds up. If you try and cover the seeds as you go, and if you are anything like me, you will end up double planting one pot and leaving another pot empty. I speak from experience on this.
As soon as you have a set of pots planted, put a small marker in one of the pots to show what you planted. I use little plastic markers that I cut from an old loose-leaf binder and write the name on it with permanent marker so that it won’t wash off when I water. Don’t skip this step. You will forget what you have planted. Again, I speak from experience on this.
Now it’s time to start germinating. I am told that the ideal temperature for seed germination is around 80 degrees F. If the temperature is lower the seeds will still germinate, it will just take longer. As long as you keep them from freezing at night, you will be ok. You can set your pots outside if the day is warm, and bring them in and set them in a window if the weather is cold. You will definitely need to bring them in at night if the weather is cold.
I have an attached greenhouse but I never heat the whole greenhouse. Instead I use a small germinating tent inside of the greenhouse that I can heat at night with one light bulb. The tent consists of a metal framework with four shelves and a clear plastic tent that slips over the framework. It has a zipper front for easy access. I bought it on Amazon for thirty-five or forty dollars. One light bulb will keep it from freezing even when the outside temperatures are in the upper twenties. Colder than that and I bring the plants inside.
You need to check your seed pots daily and keep them moist. Don’t drown them; just trickle a little water in to keep them from drying out. Keep an extra close eye on peat pots as they seem to wick the water away faster than plastic pots.
Your seeds will usually sprout in about five to seven days, but don’t freak out if it takes a little longer. After the seeds sprout you will want to give them a little plant food about once a week. Some people mix slow release fertilizer in with their potting soil to avoid this, but I prefer to mix up a little Miracle Grow and water it in once a week. I know, this isn’t sustainable gardening; but one tablespoon of Miracle Grow mixes with a gallon of water, and I’ve been using the same little box on Miracle Grow for about five years now, so it’s pretty close to sustainable for me. I’m sure that there is an organic alternative to Miracle Grow if you want to go that route.
When your seedlings are about an inch tall you will need to remove the two weakest ones from the pot (this is assuming that you planted three seeds and that they all germinated).
When the plants are six to eight weeks old they can be planted in the garden. I usually take the seedlings out of the germinating tent and leave them in the unheated greenhouse for a couple of days to harden them off a little. I try to plant them in the morning so that they will have the benefit of a day in the sunshine to get used to their new climate.