Planting from Seed

Starting plants indoors allows you to get a leg up on the growing season and to grow things that aren’t native to your area.  The general rule of thumb is to start transplants indoors 6 – 8 weeks before the last frost date for your area (around April 15th in my area of Northern California).  I recommend that you do a series of plantings to extend the harvest.

I have been planting seeds over the last several weeks.  I’ve thinned the beets, kohlrabi, carrots and broccoli some already and will need to thin the spinach and some other things soon.  I realized that I don’t need to plant so many carrots and broccoli in seed containers, as they take quite readily.  A key ingredient in viable seedlings is keeping the roots moist – don’t let them dry out or your seedlings may not survive.


I recently cleared my seedlings out of the kitchen at my spouse’s request.  Under the back arbor in the rain, they have suffered and I will likely lose a number of the ones out there.


To avoid making my mistake, make sure your seedlings get plenty of sunshine, and a reasonable amount of water – keep the soil moist, but not soaked.  Shade and too much water will cause plants to become leggy (see photo above).  It can also cause “Damping Off Disease” – a white mold that forms in the top of the soil. Damping Off disease flourishes in cold, wet damp weather and little sunshine, and quickly spreads across the soil and wilts the seedling. However, it is reversible, as the disease can’t survive in sunnier drier conditions.  In any case, it is always best to give your seedlings the best possible chance of becoming strong, healthy adults.

If, like me, you don’t have a sun room where you can keep your seedlings, you can create a mini greenhouse with some low-cost materials.  Often these are called “cold frames” and they are basically some hoops and clear plastic (attached with clips) that create a tunnel for your plants to live under.  The plastic holds in heat and protects the tender seedlings from harsh elements (too much rain, etc).

Seeds are typically viable for about a year, so if you have saved seed, you may want to test it first before you make the effort of planting a lot of it.  Just plant a few seeds and see how they do.  Soil temperature for most seeds is on the 70 – 85 degree F range.  Hotter weather plants like tomatoes, peppers and squash like hotter soil temperatures, while cooler weather plants like peas and fava beans can germinate at much lower temperatures – which is part of why they work as cover crops for the winter.

In terms of container selection, using the individual planter trays is nice because then you don’t have to disentangle young seedlings from one another – a process that can traumatize the plants.  However, using such small containers may mean transplanting the seedling more than once, as you may need to graduate it to a larger container before you move it to a spot in the ground of your raised beds.

An organic seedling starting mix is a good way to go to get your seedlings started.  It can provide the nutrients it needs to be on its way.  I have started many seedlings in mushroom compost with success in the past as well.  In terms if depth, read the seed pack to determine how deep to plant the seeds, but best to plant them slightly less deep than recommended because you can always add soil on top, but it’s difficult to push the seedling deeper once it’s established.  The seed pack will tell you how long they should take to germinate.  You want to let some substantial growth take place before you transplant the seedlings either into a larger container or to their final destination, but try to avoid letting them get root-bound (when you pull a seedling out of the container and there’s a massive dense array of roots, it’s root-bound).

Some plants are easier than others to grow from seed, but the appropriateness of the variety you choose in relation to your locale is probably the largest factor in determining your success.  Read the seed pack carefully for instructions, as they will tell you when to start them, how long they will take to germinate, etc.

Growing from seed is a uniquely satisfying experience -especially when you have saved seed from a particularly delicious tomato, squash, pepper or other vegetable that you want to enjoy again.  If you are using seeds retrieved from last night’s dinner, you will want to wash them thoroughly and lay them on a plate to dry them out for several days.  Then put them in an envelope and label them.  This is important!  There is nothing more frustrating than getting to the following growing season and having no idea what seeds you have saved.  While seed packs have instructions that tell you when to plant, seeds from heirloom tomatoes at the grocery store do not.  Be aware of your growing seasons so you don’t plant things at inappropriate times.  Just do a search online like this: Growing season + (name of vegetable).  You can always ask your local nursery as well.

I do not recommend buying seedlings from Big Box stores.  They are typically shipped long distances, treated with chemical fertilizers, and often sold in regions where they will not even grow at that time.  I have had much more success with my local nurseries.

Thanks to the Gardener’s Network for some tips that contributed to this posting:

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