Readers, this is the first of 12 basic homestead skills we’ll be presenting throughout the year from Kimberlee Bastien’s new book 52 Homestead Skills. We invite you to join Kimberlee and her family on their journey to self-sufficiency. Go to 52 Homestead Skills to learn more about this series.
Watching a tomato seedling slowly push up through the soil and reach toward the light is truly magical. That one tiny seedling will eventually produce pounds of irresistible tomatoes.
Seed starting is a great way to save money compared with purchasing starts. For roughly the price of one plant, you can purchase a whole package of seeds. Plus, you’ll have a wide selection to choose from when ordering seeds from catalogs. To start your own seeds, you’ll first need to gather some supplies.
Containers. Your local garden store will likely sell seed-starting trays, but you can also reuse any old plastic container. I saved family-sized yogurt containers for years, which made perfect planters to start larger vegetables. Punch a few holes into the bottom of your container, and place the lid underneath to catch any runoff. This will prevent your soil from staying too damp and growing mold.
Seed-starting trays often include clear plastic domes, which keep seedlings and soil moist to improve germination. If you’re using your own containers and want a dome, you can use a plastic bag instead.
Soil. To make your own seed-starting mix, try mixing together one part coconut coir, one part vermiculite or sand, and one part weed-free compost. Or you can buy a bag of seed-starting mix from the store. Consider adding some worm castings after your seeds develop their first leaves.
Water. Remembering to water your seedlings is tougher than you might think. Grab a spray bottle and mist your seedlings every day or two to keep them moist.
Light. If your seedlings don’t receive enough light, they’ll grow long, thin, and weak. These plants will have a difficult time adapting to the harsh, windy reality of the outdoors. Your best bet will be to grow your seedlings in a south-facing window, or to purchase artificial lights. You don’t need full-spectrum grow lights (which can be quite expensive). I simply use a 4,000-Kelvin LED shop light. Keep your seedlings a few inches from the light for 8 to 10 hours a day.
Heat. Most seedlings will be happy to grow at room temperature, although a few vegetables, such as peppers, prefer extra-warm soil to germinate. You can use a seedling heat mat to keep them cozy until they get their second set of true leaves.
Now all you have to do is follow the directions on the seed packet. The packet will tell you exactly how deep to plant your seeds and how long it will take them to germinate, so you can easily calculate when they’ll be ready to plant outside.
Before planting out your seedlings, it’s a good idea to harden them off by placing them outside for a few hours a day, out of direct sun and wind. Slowly increase the amount of time they’re outside by a couple of hours each day. I admit, I sometimes skip this step and just plant them outside on a mild, cloudy day, and then cover them with row cover if the weather station is forecasting exceptionally windy or sunny conditions.
So if you haven’t already, you may now excitedly rip open all your seed catalogs and enjoy the debates among your family members over which selections to try. Then, let the spring planting begin!
Look for the next installment in our homestead skills series —“Build a Chicken Chunnel”— in the March/April issue of our sister magazine Grit. This skill comes with instructions on how to build a structure to bring your birds into the garden. Subscribe to the magazine.
You can also take part in our series by visiting 52 Homestead Skills, where we’ll release new excerpts from Kimberlee Bastien’s book every month during 2019.Don’t want to wait for great content? You can buy Kimberlee’s book at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.