How to Start Seed From Scratch

Susan Glaese shares how to start seed from scratch to save money on starter plants for your garden.

| March/April 1986

This was the goal to the leaf & root
For this did the blossom burn its hour
This little grain is the ultimate fruit
This is the awesome vessel of power.

— Georgie Starbuck Galbraith 

"Why should I go through all that trouble when I can just pick up a six-pack at the store?" I've heard that comment made in reference to my homemade beer, but it's never been repeated after the brew was tasted and the costs compared. And you've probably been asked that same question if you've ever told people you raised seedlings from scratch, as we do at MOTHER EARTH NEWS gardens. Of course, it's easy to answer by saying that seed starting gives us something to dirty our fingernails with when the view outside says spring isn't quite here yet, or that we enjoy being part of the whole process from seed to harvest, but those rationales are only the tip of the cotyledon.

How to Start Seed From Scratch

When stopping by the local nursery's "six-pack rack," I've typically found such "bargains" as trays of broccoli that are seven inches tall and already starting to head . . . or a total of three varieties of peppers — each of which, upon examination, has a mile of roots in one square inch of soil . . . or maybe five whole varieties of tomatoes, all so artificially stimulated with lights and fertilizer that it would take them weeks to recover from the shock of encountering sunshine and garden soil.

By starting your own seedlings, though, you can pamper the seed as well as the plant, because you'll have control over every stage of growth. In addition, your choices will jump from a meager handful of varieties to sometimes more than a hundred, including — perhaps — heat-resistant spinach for your Florida or Texas garden, heirloom beans whose historic roots grow deep in your own region's soil, subarctic tomatoes to try in Michigan, or even an experimenter's dream grab bag of vegetables from around the world. You'll also be able to nurture your infant seedlings with such fine first foods as worm castings, leaf mold, nettle tea, and "room to grow on." And for the price of six nursery-started ankle-highs, you can usually purchase a palmful of eager embryos — enough to grow a year's worth of plants and still share seeds and seedlings with the neighborhood. Finally, raising your own starts will insure that bed space or rows won't be left fallow for lack of available succession plants.

In MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 92, pages 48-51, Olivia and Walker Abel (former Eco-Village gardeners) provided a basic course in seed starting, using a soil mix made up of organic ingredients. In the pages that follow, I'd like to look into the secret life of seeds and describe some special touches that will help make your seed-starting ventures more productive of both healthy plants and personal satisfaction.

Magic Beans

Many a parent has grinned when overhearing a child brag on Mom or Dad's behalf, but it's my son Erik who smugly smiles when I begin a classroom gardening demonstration by saying, "Did you know that I can hold a hundred watermelons in one hand and a thousand carrots in the other, and that YOU can hold a meadow or 50 maple trees in yours? Yep, it's true." And I hold out a handful of seeds. "Magic beans are no fairy tale, you know, because there's magic in every single seed. There's a living plant-child inside each one whose parents packed it a big lunch box of stored food to hold it over until it was old enough to feed itself."

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