8 Things To Think About Before Starting Seeds
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At long last, the snow on the ground has almost all melted, the songbirds are chirping in the forest around us, the crocuses and daffodils have poked their heads out of the ground and there’s a distinct feeling of spring in the air.
I LOVE this time of year.
Full disclosure: I actually love every seasonal transition. Spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter and winter to spring. I get a little dreamy when the seasons begin to change and we enter a new time of year with fresh projects to tackle and things to enjoy.
But the transition from winter to spring is truly a special time. It’s when life begins again. It’s the very first taste of the times of plenty that lie ahead.
As a gardener, the beginning of spring means one thing above all: seed starting season.
We grow all of our annual vegetables from seed so we need to start thinking about what we’re planting by the end of winter. We usually start our first seeds indoors in February and by March we’re in full-on seed starting mode.
The onions, green onions and leeks get planted first in February. Then come the tomatoes and peppers in early March. Next is the broccoli and cabbage and then we start to direct sow our other veggies like carrots, beets and peas.
I also start some of our herbs from seed, like sage, lavender and cannabis. So needless to say, we need a little bit of indoor growing space and some forethought before planting to make sure we set ourselves up for growing success from seed to harvest each year.
There are always a few things to consider before starting seeds in the spring. For starters, aside from what you’ll be planting, you also need to decide how much of each plant you’ll grow. Trust me, I know first hand that it’s all too easy to start more seeds than you actually have room for in your garden! Then again, it’s always better to over-plant and thin out seedlings than to not plant enough (in my opinion anyways).
Next you’ll need to know how and when to start your chosen seeds. Do they need to be direct sown or should you start them indoors? When should you plant them? And by the way, what gardening zone are you in again?
Yep, there’s a lot to think about before you even start your seeds. But don’t worry if you’ve already begun! In my experience the garden has a way of working itself out. Still, it never hurts to start off on the right foot:)
8 things to consider before starting vegetable seeds
1. When is your last average frost date?
Above all else, you should know two things as a gardener: your first and last average frost dates. The entire gardening season revolves around these two dates, and knowing your last frost date is critically important when it comes to seed starting.
Starting your seeds indoors too early could mean that they grow too large before the weather warms up and they need more space than you can provide them with indoors. Direct sowing them too early might mean that the seeds won’t germinate. Starting them too late could mean a shorter season and a smaller harvest or, for cold weather varieties, it could mean the plants will bolt and go to seed before you’ve had a chance to harvest them for food.
As long as you know your approximate last frost date for your area and gardening zone (which you should also know), then you’ll have a good idea when to start all of your seeds. I find The Old Farmer’s Almanac (online edition) to be the easiest and most accurate way to find first and last frost dates for all different garden zones.
2. Do the seeds need to be direct sown or started indoors?
While some seeds can either be started indoors or direct sown, others are more particular about where they take root. Peas, for example, don’t like to have their roots disturbed, so they do better when direct sown outdoors in the place where they’ll remain. Tomatoes and peppers, on the other hand, need to be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date in most gardening zones because they won’t have time to mature and produce much fruit if you wait until the weather outside is warm enough to direct sow.
Do some research on the types of seeds you’re planting and find out whether you need to start them indoors early in the season or whether they’ll do better direct sown in the garden. For a quick reference guide, grab a copy of our free Seed Starting Cheat Sheet for tips on how to start 10 common garden vegetables from seed.
3. How many plants of each variety do you want to grow?
Figuring this out with better accuracy gets easier year after year as you begin to get a feel for how much space you have in your garden and how much of each vegetable you and your family actually eat.
For us, we can never grow too many tomato plants. Even if we can’t fit them in the garden beds, we can always plant them in buckets (and we can always get more buckets if we have too many plants!) We love eating tomatoes fresh-off-the-vine in the summer and use them in all sorts of sauces and preserves for use over the winter.
Cucumbers, however, are major producers and a handful plants will give us all that we need for fresh eating and preserving (pickling cukes are another story, although I get those from a local farm). So we only plant 5 or 6 cucumber plants max.
It helps to have an idea of how much of each vegetable you’ll actually use (and have space in your garden for). Think about what you and your family eat the most and start there. If you’re not sure or you’ve never tried growing a particular vegetable before, err on the side of growing less. See how you like it first before allowing it to take up valuable real estate in your garden. This is especially true if you’re limited on garden space and want to get the most out of every inch. Besides, if you discover something new that you really like, you can always plant more next year:)
4. Where will you plant your seeds & seedlings?
If direct sowing, where exactly will you plant your seeds? You’ll want to move your annual vegetables as little as possible so that their roots can really take hold so think about where you want to put them before you put them there!
You should also think about where you’ll eventually be transplanting your seedlings to when they’re ready to go outside. Taking time to map out your garden and decide what will go where before starting seeds and considering things like crop rotation and companion planting ahead of time will help your plants to thrive in your garden later on.
5. What will you start seeds in?
If you’re starting seeds indoors, you’ll need to decide what you’re going to start your seeds in. You can start seeds in all sorts of things, from egg cartons to eggshells, recycled plastic containers to cell trays and everything in between. Decide what makes the most sense for you and the veggies you’re growing.
For seedlings you’ll be transplanting into the garden early in the season (like lettuce), you could opt for small cell trays or shallow egg cartons. For plants that will be indoors longer and need more room to grow (like tomatoes), opt for peat pots or save money by making your own seed starting pots out of newspaper.
6. How will you ensure your indoor seedlings get adequate light?
If you’re starting seeds indoors, you’ll need a light source to mimic the sun once seedlings sprout. Now, you can always put seedlings near a warm sunny window and use the actual sun as your light source, but since you’ll be starting many of your seeds in the winter or early spring when it’s still cold outside (and chilly near windows), your best bet is to set up some indoor growing lights.
You can purchase grow lights online or at your local garden supply store or grab some fluorescent lights from the hardware store and make your own indoor growing stand. Either way, make sure you’ve got a light source set up and ready to go before your seedlings sprout.
7. Where will you set up your indoor seedlings?
I’ve seen people grow seedlings on kitchen countertops and even set up grow lights on their living room floor, but that would never fly in this house with a toddler and two cats roaming around. In fact, we lost the very first round of broccoli seedlings we ever started to our kitten because we put them in a way too accessible place. Now we grow our seedlings on a metal shelving unit fitted with lights, in our laundry/mud room away from prying toddler hands and curious kitty cat paws.
Another thing you should be careful of is to keep them away from any heat sources (other than grow lights, the sun or a heating pad meant for growing seedlings, of course). Keeping seedlings too close to a heater or wood stove can dry out the soil and even kill the seedlings.
You’ll need to consider your space and any special circumstances (dogs, cats, kids, heaters, etc.) and make sure to keep your seedlings in a safe spot so they actually make it to the garden!
8. How will you care for them if you need to go away?
Seedlings are like babies: they require constant care and they’re very fragile until they’re strong enough to go out on their own (to the garden, that is).
While you might be able to get away with leaving full-grown plants alone for a week or so in the summer, or maybe have a neighbour water them once every few days, seedlings pretty much need daily care to make sure they survive. Germinating seeds especially need consistent watering to keep the soil moist. So what should you do if you need to go away from home for a few days or even a week or two while your seedlings are still just getting started?
If you have a good neighbour, friend or family member to care for them on a consistent basis, consider yourself lucky. Just make sure you go over your light and watering schedule with them. We’ve left seedlings with a friend before and lots of them died because they were either over-watered or under-watered. We had to start lots of our seeds all over again which put us a few weeks behind. Moral of the story: make sure whoever is caring for them knows what they’re doing.
Another option is to automate your lights and watering. We use a light timer on our grow lights that shuts off at 10 pm and turns back on at 6 am when our seedlings are just getting started. Seedlings need lots of light, but still, the lights shouldn’t be on 24/7 because they need a natural “night” period as well. Light timers are super inexpensive and make indoor growing just that much easier, so I recommend one even if you’re not going anywhere.
Likewise, setting up an automatic watering system can save you from having to hand water and is definitely a good idea if you’re going away and don’t have anyone to come water every day.
We’re headed on a very rare beach vacation at the end of March this year, so we invested in a basic drip irrigation system and watering timer for less than $50 so that we can set up automatic watering for our seedlings while we’re away. The bonus is that we can set up that drip irrigation system outside when our seedlings are ready to go out and automate some of our outdoor watering all season long. Drip irrigation is especially good for plants like tomatoes that don’t like to get their leaves wet!
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
There’s a lot to think about when you’re planning your garden, and honestly, these are just a handful of the things you’ll want to consider before even starting your annual vegetable seeds. But the more experience you gain as a gardener, the better you’ll get at planning for a productive and plentiful garden each year. The most important thing of all is that you take action and get those seeds started!
Even if you mess something up or have a #gardenfail, you’ll learn valuable lessons that will help you improve your garden game year after year. That’s how we’ve learned almost everything we know about gardening today, and I can say without a doubt that we head into each new gardening season with more knowledge than we had the year before.
At the end of the day, your garden is a classroom where you should feel free to learn and play and experiment without worrying about it being “perfect.” Because there’s no such thing as a perfect garden, or a perfect gardener! There’s always more to learn, even for the most experienced gardener. In the meantime, you get to enjoy some beautiful homegrown vegetables and marvel at the miracle of growing a big, luscious, life-giving plant from nothing more than a tiny seed. How cool is that?
What will you be growing from seed this year? What past garden failures have you learned from and what will you do differently this year? Let me know if the comments below!
P.S. Don’t forget to grab your free Seed Starting Cheat Sheet and take the guesswork out of starting 10 common garden vegetables from seed!
P.P.S. If you’re serious about growing your own food at home, then make sure to download my free guide, How to Grow Your Own Food in Less Than 15 Minutes A Day and learn how to grow an organic grocery store in your backyard even if you’re limited on time!
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness 🙂
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