Growing your own seedlings is not hard to do and opens the door to new opportunities for the home gardener, homesteader or small farmer. You’ll have a vast number of varieties available to choose from, more control over the amount of seed you purchase, and you’ll save money by growing your plants yourself. Starting your own plants gives you the chance to extend the growing season at either end too─try finding started seedlings for a fall sowing of broccoli! You’ll know exactly how those plants were produced, what kind of fertilizer and pesticides─if any─were used, where the seed came from and whether or not that seed was an open-pollinated heirloom variety, a hybrid, or something else. But starting and growing your own seedlings can seem a little intimidating at first; here are some tips to help you get started.
Seed companies typically include growing instructions on the back of the seed packets. Any notes specific to that plant should be listed there. Information like whether those seeds germinate better in the dark or under the light, what temperature they prefer to germinate at, and how many weeks it should take to grow to a plant to sufficient size that it can be transplanted outdoors. You will also find the days to maturity, which can aid you in knowing when to harvest, as well as any pertinent harvest details. It’s all valuable information to help you succeed at growing your own plants.
2. Use lights
While you can absolutely grow plants on the sill of a sunny south-facing window, I’m going to be brutally honest here and inform you that you’re going to have much better results using lights. Plants grown in a window and without additional lighting tend to be more leggy because they’re reaching for the light, whereas if you set up a lighting system you can keep that light just 2-4 inches above the plants so they’re not “reaching”. I’ve grown seedlings both ways, and you can still get a harvest from plants grown without additional lighting during the seedling stage, however I’ve found that plants grown with lights tend to be hardier, more vigorous, and yield better than those grown without.
3. Set up a fan
One of the most common difficulties folks new to growing seedlings run into are fungal diseases like “dampening-off”. Some plants are more prone to this than others, but generally it’s the result of too little air circulation around the tender seedlings. I always set up an oscillating fan to move the air around my plants. This also has the benefit of strengthening the stems of the seedlings.
4. Consider your timing
Some types of plants take longer to grow than others, so you may not be starting all of your seeds at the same time. That’s where your packet-backs come into play; look for information about how many weeks prior to their transplanting you should start them─many require about 8 weeks, but there are some that need 12 weeks or more, while others only need 2-4 weeks.
You can use this seed-planting schedule calculator from Johnny’s to figure it all out.
5. Use good soil
A simple soil-less seed-starting medium is all you need to grow great plants. That’s usually a mixture of peat moss and vermiculite, though some─like the Johnny’s 512 Mix─also have a percentage of compost to aid in feeding the seedlings. I’ve used Pro-Mix BX Mycorrhizae for the last 6 or 7 years because I can get a large bale of it right at Campbell’s True Value in Madison, and my seedlings always do well in the stuff. I never use Miracle Grow.
Note: Myccorhizae is a fungus which grows in symbiosis with plants in a relationship that is mutually beneficial─seems to me that can only be a good thing.
6. Water with care
Cover your seeds with a dome or with plastic at the time of sowing to retain moisture during germination, then monitor the tiny sprouting seedlings carefully as they emerge and grow. Water your tender baby plants from below, taking care not to over water─allowing the soil to dry out a bit between waterings encourages root development as the seedlings dig deeper for water. Using a fan can dry your soil quicker so always monitor your seedlings carefully; I check my plants in the morning and in the evening every day.
7. Fish fertilizer
If you’re using a soil-mix that has compost in it already, you shouldn’t need to fertilize with anything more until you go to transplant your seedlings. However a good many soil-mixes do not have a fertilizer in them and an application of a gentle fertilizer like the Neptune’s Harvest fish emulsion from Johnny’s gives the seedlings a good boost. I’ve always done a half-strength solution every 2-3 weeks, and then a full-strength application when I transplant them. Yes, the fish emulsion has a particular “fragrance” so if you’re growing plants inside your living space like I do, you’ll have to tolerate the smell for a bit, but it usually clears out within 24-48 hours─unlike the smell of that burnt microwave popcorn.
8. Harden them off before planting.
Plants need to be acclimated slowly to the conditions outdoors before you plant them in your garden; we can this “hardening them off”. A couple of weeks before you intend to transplant, begin moving your seedlings outside for brief periods during the day─just a few hours at a time to start, in a location that is protected from the wind and which offers “dappled sunshine”. Believe me, I know what a chore it can be to move flat after flat of seedlings outside every morning and then back inside every evening, but doing this is going to toughen up your plants so that transplanting is not such a shock to their systems.
I don’t come from a long line of farmers─but if I can learn to grow my own seedlings so can you. Once you understand what plants need to thrive you’ll be able to produce your own high-quality seedlings for your gardens. That will open the door for you to grow new varieties you can’t find at the local nurseries and allow you to extend your growing season, providing more fresh food for your family, ensuring your own food security.
References & Resources
14 Tips for Starting Your Own Seeds – from Rodale’s Organic Life.
How to Start Seeds, Seed Starting – article from Gardeners.com.
Seed-Starting Methods at the Johnny’s Research Farm – from the Grower’s Library via Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Grow Your Own Seeds – this article from Mother Earth News is more about seed-saving and growing crops for harvesting seed, but it might prove useful if you’re not familiar with these concepts or if you’re interested in harvesting your own seed some day.