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Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.


Starting a Garden From Seeds

The first seed catalogs start coming in the mail after Christmas, and I’m like a little kid from decades ago with the latest Sears catalog, closely examining the “enhanced” photos of glorious healthy vegetables at their peak.

After a couple of weeks, I come to my senses and order only a few packets of things that I know will actually grow in my garden and begin my annual process of starting a complete garden from little dry specks called seeds.

Although seed catalogs can be pretty exciting (at least for me, lol) and I want to grow everything I see, I need to be practical. My personal priorities for buying seeds are:

1. Vegetables that I use the most get top priority. What I have left over in early fall can be frozen or preserved in other ways — tomatoes being my favorite.

2. Due to the shorter growing season here in Colorado, plants that have a short growing period are my first choice. I look for as close to 50 days as I can get. I start tomatoes and peppers in early March. Other plants are started based on their plant-to-harvest times, working backwards from the last frost date. Some seeds are planted directly into the soil (green beans, carrots, beets, turnips, leafy plants such as lettuce, chard, kale, arugula, some herbs). You can download my seed starting chart here.

3. Plants that are hardy. Again, very important! I look for resistance to as many diseases as possible without buying GMO.

4. Vegetables and herbs that can be preserved, whether by freezing, canning, dehydrating, cold storage or culturing.

Some FAQs

Why seeds vs. seedlings?

With seeds, you get more variety, the pleasure of growing something from scratch, and buying seed packets is more economical.

What’s involved with growing from seed?

Growing plants from seed is interesting and easy. I prefer those plastic trays with a clear plastic lid and 6-cell trays or even 2-inch rounds (Walmart is a source for these trays). Then, it just takes some seed starter soil, seeds and water.

Starter soil should be mixed with water until spongy before you add seeds. Fill the tray cells with the starter, poke some depressions in the dirt, toss in 2-3 seeds per cell, and cover with a teensy bit of soil. The general rule of thumb is to cover the seeds with soil 2 times the size of the seed. Mark your trays with a Sharpie or tags so you know what you planted.

Seeds do not need light, only consistent warmth, until they have leaves. Add a clear plastic cover to make sure your soil does not dry out (keep damp but not soaked). Check the seeds every day for growth and water needs. The ones that have sprouted need to be removed from the incubator so they get light and air circulation.

Pinch back extra plants so there is one per cell. As they outgrow their little cells, you’ll need to transfer the seedlings gradually to larger containers and start introducing actual garden soil into the mix. Make sure they don’t dry out, and you can add a little weak plant food.

How long do seeds take to germinate?

It’s different for every plant — tomatoes can take just 3-4 days, peppers can take two weeks. Ready the packet! Some seeds even need to be soaked over night before planting.

If you’re in a hurry, a heating pad under the tray helps. Otherwise, keep them in a consistently warm place (the top of the refrigerator is good) and they will sprout.

Do you need a grow light?

I grew my own plants for years using either a sunny window (southern exposure — with the inconvenience of moving the plants around to catch optimal sunlight) or fluorescent light bulbs (easier). I now have an LED grid light for my seedlings and it has made a world of difference with accelerated growth: bigger, stockier, stronger plants. So the short answer is no, you don’t need a grow light, but it sure makes a difference.

Why not collect your own seeds from store-bought produce?

You can and I sometimes do, but keep in mind they may not be resistant to local diseases and the plant-to-harvest time may be longer than what your climate can support.

Why deal with those little starter pots? Why not just go large in the beginning?

In oversized pots, the seedlings will spend all of their time making roots to fill up a larger pot and little time to grow the actual plant. So there is a very good reason to start off small and work your way up to bigger containers until the plants go into the garden. I start off with the 6 packs, then move them to 2.5-inch pots, then to 4-inch, then #1 containers if needed — then the garden.

Can I plant directly into the ground from the planters?

It’s not advisable. Plants need to be “hardened off” to the elements: strong sun, cooler night temperatures, wind. All of these can shock or kill off your seedlings if they are not gradually introduced to these conditions before being planted in the ground.

Once transferred to your garden, the plants may (or may not) pause due to transplant shock, but then should grow heartily and create a beautiful, productive garden for you.

Deb Tejada is an urban farmer, foodie, do-it-yourselfer, graphic designer, illustrator and web developer living in sunny Colorado. When she’s not in the kitchen or garden, you can find her at The Herban FarmerRead all of Deb's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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