With all this gardening advice, I may surprise you with this confession: I very rarely start seeds indoors and plant outside.
While seeds are certainly the cheaper than transplants, I must admit that I have had very limited success with starting seeds indoors. Starting seeds indoors requires a little more than just sticking a seed into the dirt and then waiting for it to grow! All too often my seeds have not taken, or have molded or I have simply forgotten to water them. Then I have to start all over again after waiting 6 weeks and having unsightly peat pots all over the place, just to end up at a nursery buying transplants anyway!
I know that this confession will probably disqualify me from “expert gardener status” but that’s OK with me. I can’t help it, I just like buying those plants all started for me. For one thing, I know they are right for my area, and most often they come with a guarantee from the nursery (mostly for shrubs, not vegetables but some places do guarantee). They have been cared for by someone who knows more and probably cares more, so I know they are strong and healthy. I don’t have to harden them off, and I really dislike thinning. It is right up there with weeding, and since I can’t avoid weeding, I have chosen to avoid thinning 🙂 And I must confess, I like the instant gratification of planting those big healthy plants! I guess I am a lazy perfectionist.
However, you may choose to try to start your seeds indoors, and if you do there are some things you will need to know to be successful.
When To Start Your Seeds
You will need to start these little seedlings 4-6 weeks before your last frost for you area. To figure out what this would be for your area, you can go here to find your last frost date. Whatever your do , don’t get spring fever and plant your garden before your last frost or you will most likely lose your precious plants. If we have a season of very heavy rain, I also wait it out a little longer so my tender plants do not get waterlogged and damaged. You can also download this handy Seed Starting Chart (pdf file). This would be a handy thing to put in your gardening notebook so you will have it for next year.
Don’t buy all kinds of expensive little containers and kits. You don’t need them! The reason you are starting from seed is to save money, right!? There are several money saving ways that you can start seeds indoors very inexpensively. You can start your seeds in toilet paper rolls (tutorial here) or even better in old newspaper (tutorial here and here). Newspaper pots can be planted directly into your garden, pot and all. I have used these before successfully. I have also used egg cartons. Cut the egg carton apart from the top part, poke holes in the bottom of the carton and plant. Line the top portion with some plastic and some pebbles and use that for your drainage tray.
How to Get Them Started
After you have your containers chosen, you will need a catch tray to place them in and to protect the surface underneath. You can use clean, old yogurt cups or you can purchase a larger tray to place them all in. If you purchase the larger tray, it will usually come with a plastic cover which is handy for keeping your seeds warm. I have also used cardboard flats, such as the ones that packs of soda or canned soup come in. You can go right to your grocer and ask for a few. They will usually be more than happy to give them to you. I have saved my grocery and shopping bags (the big ones are good) and put the box inside it. You can cut it to fit and tape it down to hold it. You could also pick up some drain racks from the dollar store or even the tubs that you use to do dishes and use those. Remember to always try do this as inexpensive as possible. One of your garden goals should be to save money instead of spending it!
Next you will need some potting soil. You can get this from your local nursery or garden center, and will probably find it cheaper at places like Wal-Mart or Kmart. Soil that has peat in it is good because it will offer you the drainage you need. Make sure you get potting soil. You can buy an inexpensive store brand as long as it is labeled potting soil or seed starter soil. Put some of your soil in up to about 1/4 inch to the top of your container and moisten it lightly with a spray bottle. Keep this spray bottle nearby because you will use it to mist your plants. Pouring water onto them will damage the tender roots and often provide too much water, causing your plants to mold or drown.
Check your seed packet for specific instructions for starting indoors. Some seeds need to be nicked or soaked overnight in water to aid in germination. Put 2-3 seeds in each pot, evenly spaced. Push the seeds down in and cover with remaining soil. Mist again lightly. Make sure you label your seeds somehow, Popsicle sticks work well. Mark the date you planted on your stick so you can keep track of when they should germinate. Use permanent marker so it will not wash off when wet. Now you will need to keep these pots warm, in sunlight and away from drafts. To keep them warm you can simply cover loosely with plastic wrap or use the plastic tray cover if you have one. Make sure you leave some breathing space, as the seeds need oxygen to germinate. Remember to mist your plants frequently. You want the soil to stay evenly moist, but not wet. Watch that your soil does not become too dry or too wet.
If you don’t have a bright sunny spot for you plants, you can use a fluorescent lamp over your plants to mimic sunlight and warmth. You can usually scrounge up a lamp that you can suspend over the plants, ask around, or you can get them cheap at Walmart. Use a 40 watt bulb, and make sure you can make the light move higher as your plants grow. It should be about 4″ above your plants I have always had sunny windows so I have never used this method, although we did hatch chickens before and needed a lamp, but I am sure that is a different thing altogether!
Once your seedlings emerge and get bigger (check your seed packet for when this should happen and compare it with your date on your label), you will need to thin them out. You can do this usually when they have two or three leaves or when they will become crowded in their little pots. You will need to transplant each plant into its own pot. They will continue to grow bigger and bigger until one day you can put them in your garden!
If you notice they are becoming “leggy”, that is thin or scraggly, they are not getting enough sunlight and you may need to implement the lamp method I mentioned. Thin scraggly plants are not healthy and are susceptible to disease, and you don’t want that after all this hard work!
Keeping Your Pots Safe
Before starting your seeds indoors, have you considered a place to keep them safe? When I did have cats, and I was ambitious and started seeds indoors, my cats were completely destructive with my little trays. They drank the water, used it for a litter box, and tried a little digging in it themselves. One year, my little children decided to help me and moved around all my plant markers to make it “look prettier”. You will need to protect those little seedlings from children, pets and occasionally husbands!
As I said before, when planning your garden, plant only what you plan to use. When starting seeds, don’t plant all those little seeds in the seed packet, or you will end up with more vegetables than you could ever need or want! You can however plan to succession plant. This is a method where you plant seeds at different times throughout the growing season so that your plants do not ripen all at once. You can do this with transplants also, though not quite as successfully, by purchasing your transplants at different times. Hit that nursery center when they are running their clearance sales towards the end of the and get some more plants!
When you plant in this way, you can be sure to have a certain vegetable all season instead of just all at once. This is a little more involved and you must have a plan and be diligent, but it worth the extra work. Simply start some seeds , say 6-10 of one vegetable, one week, then do some more the following week. Make sure you date your plant markers so you can keep track. Using this method, you will have a continual harvest of that particular vegetable.
Once your plants are established and growing well you will need to harden them off. You cannot take a plant and transplant it directly to the garden. They may go into shock and die. Hardening of is simply exposing your plants to the elements gradually. About two weeks before you want to plant, begin taking your pots outside in the warmth of the day, and leaving them out for 1 hour, then increase to 2, then 3 until eventually they are outside most of the day. Eventually you will leave them out overnight, ideally for a week before you plant. Watch for heavy rains, very cold nights and frost warnings and be sure to bring your plants in if any of these are expected. Also be sure again to keep animals and children away from your pots. Keep them in an area where they cannot be flipped over, knocked down or dug up by pets.
All Those Extra Seeds
Seed companies would love to tell you that your seeds are only good for one growing season. That is not true. You can store seeds for years and still plant them. If you started some seeds, you will likely have many left over. Simply close the packet tightly and tape them into your garden journal. Baseball card pockets usually work well for these. Keep them dry and away from sunlight. Watch for clearance sales towards the end of the season and stock up on some seeds for the next year.
This Is Too Much Work, I Want Transplants!
OK, so now that you know what is involved in starting seeds you have decided to go with transplants. I can understand 🙂
You still need a plan. Never go to a nursery with out one, or you will fall in love with all those beautiful promising little plants and overbuy. Make sure you have a list of what you want and how much you want, and shop wisely.
Transplants are more expensive, but I feel worth it. They don’t have to break your budget though. You can play smart and get them much, much cheaper.
First of all, find out if your local high school has a vocational horticulture program. Many times they do, and they will have a greenhouse. The students will do all the seedling stuff for you, and you can buy the transplants. This is a very inexpensive way to get your transplants as they usually sell them for half the cost (or less) than a garden center. The variety may be smaller, but you can fill in the gaps at your local nursery.
Another way is to buy only a few plants, and wait out the sales and get more. This is a great way to succession plant and save money. Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal Mart all have decent garden centers and will be cheaper than a nursery most of the time. Just like with groceries, know your prices to get the best deal.
You can also split packs with a friend. You may not want 6 tomato plants. If you split the pack with someone you can get what you want and save money.
You can become friends with your local nursery center and barter with them also if you have the time. Maybe they need short term help and in exchange they will offer you a substantial discount.
You can also use free cycle. Freecycle.org is a forum where you can post and get stuff for free in your local area. You can ask for what you need and may be surprised at what others will give you. Also check craigslist.org for others who are gardening items cheap, and even giving some people giving things away. Don’t forget EBay too. You can search up in the local area and you can also order seeds from many sellers there.
Sources For Seeds
I have always bought my seeds from places like Wal mart or K Mart. They have a great selection and are cheap. If you want heirloom plants or a particular plant, you can order from a catalog. If you Google search what you are looking for, I am sure that you will have many come up. I order bare root and shrubs from Four Seasons Nursery and have been very happy in the past. I have used them for several years and they have a great guarantee on their products as well as fast shipping and excellent customer service.