How to Start Vegetable Seed From Scratch

Susan Glaese shares how to start vegetable seed from scratch with tips on planting and growing of specific seeds.
By Susan Glaese
March/April 1986
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Beans are planted outdoors when all danger of frost is past, about six inches apart for most varieties.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/R_R


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Starting Seeds For Spring

By starting seeds indoors, you get a jump start on spring garden planting.

Learn how to start vegetable seed and grow your own vegetables while saving money on seeds and plants. The following specific seeds are a good starting point when growing your own vegetable garden. 

Start Vegetable Seed From Scratch

Monocots

LILY FAMILY — ALLIUMS: Alliums include onions, leeks, chives, and garlic. Onions germinate in 14 to 21 days and can be grown indoors from seed, directly sown, or grown into sets that can be used the following year. Cool temperatures (55 degrees to 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and firm, light-textured soil are ideal for good germination. Do not "help" the emerging seedling by straightening it or removing the seed coat from the first stalk, and keep housebound starts trimmed back to about three inches high. For direct sowing in spring, tilth up the bed, then firm it down a bit and plant in shallow furrows. The seedlings will be thinned later.

The little onion sets that you purchase at the feed and seed or the nursery can also be produced successfully at home. To experiment, prepare a small section of bed, say three- to four-feet long, and broadcast seed in early spring. Chop it in with a leaf rake, tamp the soil to firm it, sprinkle on straw or some other light mulch, and just weed and wait. Don't be concerned about thinning because, come late July, you'll harvest these baby bulbs. Dry them outdoors for a week or two, trim the tops off, and store them, as you would mature onions, in a cool dry place till next spring. Then simply set them out about six inches apart for an early-season jump.

Leeks, which germinate in 14 to 21 days, are similar to onions but should be planted in trenches that you slowly fill in, in order to blanch the stems.

Though many folks plant garlic cloves in spring, I've gotten the best results from bedding them down in the lull of fall. Planted about one inch under the surface, pointed end facing upward, they get a bit of growth on them before winter, then really take off come spring. If you place them in a diamond pattern and mulch with leaves under a layer of straw, you'll keep weeds at bay and you'll know where to feel for bulbs when the tops have died back. Mulch heavily in areas with severe winter temperatures.

Dicots

PEA OR PULSE FAMILY: These dicots are directly sown and include all of the peas and beans (broad beans, lima beans, bush and snap beans, soybeans, etc.). An initial soaking in warm water for an hour or two can be used to start things happening, but don't soak the seeds longer or you'll risk their splitting open. Once soaked, they can be put into the "mummy wrap," described in the accompanying article, and kept at a temperature above 65 degrees Fahrenheit (preferably 80 to 90 degrees). Rhizobium bacteria, usually found in powdered form at garden supply stores, can be dusted on damp seeds before sowing to increase yields as well as soil nitrogen. I usually sprinkle water from my fingertips onto the seeds, stir them around gently, and then shake them in a paper bag containing this nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Beans are planted outdoors when all danger of frost is past, about six inches apart for most varieties. My particular favorite is the Royalty purple-podded bean. I like the ease with which it can be seen at harvest and the fact that it can be planted a few weeks earlier than most other types.

Peas, of course, like it cool, so they're grown in spring and fall in most climates or over the winter in such very southern locales as parts of Florida, Texas, and California. Typically planted around St. Patrick's Day in the North, or as soon as the ground can be worked in central states, peas are often the first seeds to be sown and are an important part of the ritual of spring. They can be planted fairly close together, leaving only two to three inches required between seeds.

PARSLEY FAMILY: This group includes carrots, parsnips, parsley, and celery.

Direct-sown and slow to germinate (requiring up to 30 days), the seeds of parsley and carrots can be hurried along a bit by soaking them overnight in warm water and then "towel drying" them for easier sowing. A friend of mine swears by mixing fine carrot seed with his dried, already used coffee grounds, claiming this provides better distribution of seeds as well as a nutritional boost for the young plants. Some gardeners suggest that using fresh grounds will help prevent visits from the carrot fly by confusing that pest's ability to home in on the carrot scent. You may also want to try a technique that's good for most root crops: Incorporate some of your accumulation of winter's wood ashes into the soil or use them as a side-dressing. The ash will add potassium, sweeten acidic earth, and deter wireworms.

Parsnips are a good choice for gardeners young in age or in experience, because they're difficult to oversow. It's not that they love overcrowding, but that the germination rate is usually low enough to allow everything to come out just right. (For this reason, careful planters should be sure to use only the freshest of seed.) In clay soils, radishes can be interplanted with parsnips to break up the surface and thus ease the slower seedlings' passage. Since parsnip germination takes three to four weeks and the vegetable requires a long growing season, get those seeds in as soon as the ground can be worked in spring!

Another lover of cool temperatures, celery may not even sprout if its environment is too warm. To encourage germination, you can try exposing the seeds to light for a day before planting. Celery can take up to three weeks to sprout, so you may try speeding things up with, again, the old warm water bath. The key to growing celery is in knowing that it has a very shallow root system, and for this reason, requires its food and water to be served up within easy reach.

MUSTARD FAMILY: These dicots make up a large family that includes kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, mustards, kohlrabi, rutabagas, turnips, and some of the Chinese greens.

Cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli thrive during the crisp, cool days of spring. They're generally started indoors, about eight to ten weeks before the last frost date, in order to give the plants time to mature before the mercury climbs too high. When the midsummer heat is on, you can either start seed outdoors for a fall crop, or indoors (especially in extreme southern climates) where the temperatures will (it's hoped!) be a bit cooler. There are even midseason cabbage varieties available to fill the dog-days gap. Brussels sprouts benefit from frost and are usually started in early summer and grown as very hardy fall and winter vegetables.

All of the members of this gang prefer firm soil and good contact around both seeds and seedlings. When sprouts show their first two true leaves, it's time to transfer them to another container. Bury the roots and stem to just below the bottom leaves whenever you transplant, and your cole crops will always have a strong and sturdy base from which to head up. Stocky aboveground stems and leaves are developed by giving seedlings plenty of elbow room and sunlight, yet keeping the air temperature a bit on the chilly side (60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Germination times will run about 7 to 14 days . . . unless mice eat them for a midnight snack!

GOOSEFOOT FAMILY: This group of dicots includes beets, spinach, and Swiss chard.

Beet seeds germinate in about 10 to 14 days. Each "seed" is actually a fruit with two to six seeds inside. (You'll want to keep this in mind when spacing.) The germination will be quicker, and sometimes more reliable, when seed is soaked in warm water for 24 hours. To make handling easier, I "towel dry" them before sowing, but, to be honest, more often than not these plants are simply direct-sown and covered with a layer of sifted leaf mold, sand, and soil mixture. Beet seed needs good contact with the soil, so it's a good idea to pat the covering earth down with your hands or the back of a shovel or spade. You may want to check your pH and adjust accordingly, too; these crimson roots don't like acid soil, nor will they tolerate fresh manures (as with most root crops).

Spinach, which germinates in about eight to ten days, is direct-sown for spring and fall because hot weather will send it bolting. Even the seeds need cool weather if they're to break free from their dormancy. So, if you're coaxing Popeye's favorite food in late summer, you might mummy-wrap the seeds and put them in the fridge for five to seven days. Spinach is usually broadcast, but can be hand-placed if the plot is small.

Swiss chard germinates in about one to two weeks, and I don't know why more gardeners don't have a bit of it tucked into a partially shaded spot. To my taste, it's like the best of spinach and oriental cabbage in one plant. And it seems to have nine lives; just when you think it's frozen or fried, it'll come back to surprise you. Swiss chard enjoys the same planting preparations as its relative, the beet.

NIGHTSHADE FAMILY: This group includes tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.

Tomatoes take up more pages in seed catalogs, and are grown in more American gardens, than probably any other vegetable. Six to eight weeks before the last frost date, you'll want to start your seeds indoors, making sure they're in good contact with the soil. Tomatoes germinate best at around 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but should be cooled down to around 60 to 65 degrees as seedlings. Keep in mind, too, that tobacco can carry tobacco mosaic virus to your seedlings; smokers are well advised to wash their hands thoroughly before working with nightshade family seeds or plants. And, as another precaution, don't set your starts near gas appliances. I once found out the hard way that a gas leak can not only harm people but can stunt tomato seedlings as well.

You may notice that your young plants develop a purplish tinge to their leaves — a sign of phosphorus deficiency. If so, don't despair; just add a little bonemeal or rock phosphate to your mix to correct the problem. And if you're using a live organic soil mix, don't use leaf mold from around walnut trees; tomatoes are affected by a toxin given off by this tree's roots.

Nightshades love heat, and the eggplant is no exception. It germinates in 7 to 14 days at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and more quickly than that if it's presprouted between moist paper towels or cloth and placed inside a plastic bag. Start seeds eight to ten weeks before the last expected frost date, and don't set out seedlings till all danger of frost is past and the soil has warmed.

I'll wager that quite a few flats or pots of pepper seeds get thrown out either because the soil was too cold (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and they rotted, or because most of us simply find it hard to believe something can take as long as peppers do (three to four weeks) to germinate. The optimum temperature you should shoot for is 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and presoaking seeds in warm water may help a little.

THE GOURD FAMILY: These plants include winter and summer squashes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupe, and cucumbers.

Most all of the members of this group can wait until the soil is warmed up after the last frost before being planted directly; set three or four seeds to a hill that has a core made up of a few shovelfuls of good compost or wellaged manure.

Gourds are prolific crawlers and climbers and don't enjoy having their roots jostled, so if you want to get a head start, grow them in flats with plenty of space between the seeds, or in individual containers. They germinate best at temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

COMPOSITAE FAMILY: Leaf and head lettuce, endive, chicory, and globe and Jerusalem artichokes are among the more popular members of this group.

Next to tomatoes, lettuce is quite the most popular salad-garden vegetable. You can raise iceberg lettuce, which is bland in appearance as well as in nutritional value . . . the easy-to-grow cos or romaine, which is dark green and upright . . . the butterhead, with its delicate flavor . . . or any of the many varieties of leaf lettuce, which are probably the favorites of most home gardeners.

Lettuce seed germinates best at between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and thereafter prefers to be kept at 60 to 65 degrees. This is easy enough to accomplish in spring, but at the end of July — as you are starting your fall salad crop — a day in the refrigerator my help to remind the seed of cool weather to come and cause it to germinate a bit more reliably. Exposure to light for a day can also help. Shade and continuous moisture are the two conditions that your growing salad greens would ask for if only they could.


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