When we begin to approach our last frost date, I start to get all kinds of excited because it means that, soon, I'll be able to start harvesting things from my garden again. Spring is beautiful here. The crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths have flowered and now the tulips and pansies are filling the neighborhood landscapes with color. Flowering trees are filled with blooms and fresh new leaves. Hardy plants are happily growing in the garden and the perennials have started to wake up. Everything starts to look like it’s hopeful again, ready to see the sun, prepared to send its energy back out into the world. Seed trays have been sown and are incubating in our mini greenhouses. This was my first full winter in an area where things look drastically different in the wintertime, and, while I enjoyed spending a restful season inside, away from the chilly temperatures, I also really anticipated the days I could start getting plants in the ground again. Since many of you are now entering prime seed-starting season, I thought I'd put together a comprehensive mini guide to starting seeds for you.
Starting Seeds 101
The first thing you need to figure out when you sit down to dream about your garden for the year is what you want to grow in the space you have available. Which veggies would you love to pick fresh right from your garden? Which herbs would you like to have on hand for your kitchen? Are there any medicinal herbs you’d like to grow this year? Once you know what you want to grow, you can determine which varieties will do best in your growing zone, purchase seeds, and schedule out your optimal planting dates. These are things I like to do during the months of December and January, when things are a bit quieter in the garden, but you still have time if you haven't had a chance to do your planning yet.
I like to map out my growing space and decide how much of each plant I'm going to grow and where I'm going to plant it. Having a master plan helps me to plan crop rotations, to not to over-fill my beds and to use my space efficiently. Knowing what I'm going to plant ahead of time allows me to create my planting schedule for the year so I don't fall behind on seed sowing, plant feeding, succession sowing, etc..
Starting Seeds Indoors vs. Outdoors
If you live in an area with a shorter growing season, you can get a head start with your seeds by starting them indoors 4-8 weeks (sometimes up to 12 weeks, depending on the plant) earlier than you would be able to get them going outside. Things like tomatoes and peppers and warm weather loving herbs like Basil can all be started indoors and then planted out after your area has finished its frosty season. If you're starting seeds in the house or garage, make sure you have a good daylight balanced bulb or a bright spot near a big window to give seedlings the light they need to get going. Plenty of light will keep them from getting leggy.
If you’re blessed with a warm growing zone and a long growing season, you can still start seeds indoors and then successively sow more seeds outdoors a month or two later to take advantage of that long season, or you can start your seeds directly outdoors once the nighttime and soil temperatures have warmed up a bit.
When we lived in southern California, I started all my seeds outdoors, but because we live much farther north now, I like to start most of them indoors or in our mini greenhouses to extend my growing season.
Seed Starting Containers
I used to use 72-cell propagating trays to start my seeds. They were super convenient and efficient. I could easily label each row of seeds and each tray was automatically watered through the flat tray that would sit beneath it. Since we started to transition away from plastic, though, I’ve come to love handmade wooden seed starting boxes even more. They’re tall enough to give my plants enough room to develop a really healthy root system right from the start and the plants seem to like them a lot better.
I also use biodegradable seed starting pots on occasion. They're usually made from coco coir or peat and are especially useful for plants that don’t like to be transplanted (think Borage, squashes, etc.) because they can be planted directly into the ground after gently removing the bottom of the pot without disturbing the roots of the plant.
Special SEED Treatments
Some seeds need to experience a cold season before they can properly germinate. If you live in an area where you already have a cold season, you can probably plant most of these seeds out in late fall, directly in the garden. But if you’re wanting to plant in spring, you can simulate the cold season by placing the seeds in a labeled container in the fridge with some barely moist soil or sand and allow them to chill there for a month (or two, or three, depending on what the plant needs) before planting the seeds outside in early spring.
Some seeds have a super protective seed coat that keeps the seed from germinating for a while. If you want those seeds to germinate quickly and more consistently, you can nick that seed coat with a piece of sandpaper or the edge of a blade to help the seed wake up. This can be difficult with seeds that are very small and hard to keep a grip on, but if you are patient and stick with it, scarification will improve your germination rate. Certain seeds can/should be scarified with freshly boiled water, but most will need to be treated with a blade or sandpaper.
Many seeds need to be soaked in water overnight (sometimes even longer) to help them germinate. Sweet peas come to mind. During our rainy seasons, I’ll sow them just before I know we’re going to get a few days of good rain and let the showers give them all the moisture they need. I've had success with this method, but if you’re expecting lots of sunny weather or if you're planting large amounts and you're dependent on your crop, it’s best to give them a soak indoors before you want to plant them. Fill a ramekin or a small dish with lukewarm water, drop the seeds in before you eat dinner, and, in most cases, they’ll be ready to plant out by the time you’re ready to head out to the garden the next morning.
Choosing the Best Spot in the Garden
Take heed to what kind of environment your plants like best. Do they prefer full sun? Part shade? Rich soil? Well-draining soil? Wet feet? Choosing the best place you can for the plant will give you the best results when it comes time to harvest. Knowing what conditions each plant prefers will also help you plan out your companion plants and permaculture-style garden layers as well.
Some plants that love full sun:
Tomatoes, peppers, dahlias, poppies, cosmos, Basil, Parsley, Thyme, Lemon Balm, Rosemary, Lavender…
Some plants that can also thrive in part shade:
Peppermints, Turmeric, Ginger, Chives, Cilantro, Oregano, Skullcap, Calendula…
Some plants that can grow in the shade:
Parsley, Cilantro, Chives, Chives, Thyme, Peppermint, Bleeding Hearts…
Many resilient plants can grow in either full sun or part shade. Try experimenting with a plant in each area to see which one does better, then you can plant more in the better-performing spot the next year.
What are you hoping to add to your garden this year?