2. How to Start Growing Your Own…

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…vegetables, that is.

Every year when I begin planning the new garden, I find it much easier to start the process by making a list of the seeds I will be growing. For quick reference I create a chart. It doesn’t have to be fancy, using a spiral notebook for a garden journal is easy to do. I include the variety name, days to harvest, which bed it will be going into, their height and spread, how many seeds I start and plant, and if and when to start indoors. (This also becomes a good reference for the following year when you can’t remember what and how many you planted in the previous year, or what that tomato was that you liked so much and want to grow again… don’t ask me how I know that.)

Below is my own list for 2017. I’m still planning which beds will get which plants. After I decide how many of each, I will plant them on the “start indoors” date and then fill in the “quantity started” column. I always start a few extra seeds than I actually need, just in case. This is handy info to know for next year, specially if the particular seed is fussy about sprouting (I have found Rosemary to be one of those). You might notice that there are 2 start dates for some seeds. Another good way to extend your harvest is to plant some vegetables for a spring or summer crop and again later for a fall crop.

Your seed packet should have all this info on the back. If it says “start seed indoors 6 weeks before your last frost date“, grab a calendar, mark your last frost date in red and count back 6 weeks. If it says “direct sow“, these seeds are better suited to being planted directly in the ground, and the packet will tell you when. The one thing on packets that always gets me, is “plant after all danger of frost has passed“. That can be a tough call. Always remember, Mother Nature can be very rude and give us a frost or snowstorm after she is showing her warm side, so be prepared to bring plants indoors or cover them up if needed.

Chart of vegetables to be grown with information on size, planting dates and how many are being grown for 2017.

Information will be filled in as I start the seeds and later when I transplant them into the garden. At this point I am still planning which veggies go into each of the 6 beds. Just noted a boo-boo in my chart. The peas should say direct sow, not transplant.

Starting the Seeds

Choose containers that are sturdy and make sure to have a few holes in the bottom for drainage. You can buy seed starting trays with clear domed covers at any store that sells garden supplies. I prefer the pots you fill yourself, but you can also get the little compressed peat pellets that you water to expand before planting the seeds in them. Another option is saving food containers like yogurt cups, paper egg cartons or even k-cups! My favorites are those clear plastic “clam shells” that bakery goods come in. They are like mini greenhouses! Just make sure to wash any food containers thoroughly in hot soapy water and rinse well. Grease or food residue can cause mold…not a good thing. Don’t forget to make drain holes!

Herb seeds sprouting up.

These little guys are almost ready to transplant into individual containers. Photo from 2016.

Unless you bought pre-filled pots or pellets, opt for a quality seed starting mix, preferably organic, and fill your containers. Water well, allow them to drain and then plant your seeds. If you are not sure how deep to plant the seeds, refer to the planting instructions on each of the packets. Don’t forget to label each pot! (Nothing worse than growing 5 different varieties of tomatoes and not knowing which plant is what… yes, I did that, everything was in order until I rearranged them on the table.) Be sure to place your pots on a tray so they can be watered and can drain without making a mess, and cover them with the dome or plastic wrap. Check them every couple days to make sure they aren’t drying out, and remove the covers after they sprout.

Plants Need Sunlight

Once your little sprouts show up, they will start looking for the sunlight. If it is not enough, they will continue to stretch towards what light there is and will grow weak and spindly. Even a south facing window will not supply enough direct sunlight this time of year. To correct this, you will need to have supplemental lighting ready from the start. This lighting should be on for 14-16 hours a day. I plug mine into a timer that is programmed to come on at 5am and shut off at 9pm. Make sure you don’t have your set up where a street light shines in at night. Plants do need to “sleep” at night, too.

Photo of lighting system in use over seedlings.

Different seeds will grow to different heights. To adjust the shorter ones, you can use props to raise individual plants under the lights. It is also helpful to only plant one variety in a container due to height differences. I wasn’t thinking when a started this tray of 4 different herbs. Photo from 2016.

Your lighting system can be very simple and relatively cheap, or you can purchase pre-made systems that could cost you big bucks. For this year you can buy a 4ft shop light or two, depending on how much seed you are starting, and suspend them by chains over a table. (The chains are necessary to raise the lights as the seedlings grow. Lights should be kept about two inches above the top leaves of the plants.)

Simple and done, and you can expand on this idea next season. For lights, you can purchase “grow light” bulbs that give the full spectrum of light that plants need, but they can be quite expensive. Using regular florescent bulbs will work just fine and they are much cheaper. Compare bulbs and look for those with higher “lumens” (brightness) between 2000 and 3000. Then there is the “kelvin” number (the color of the light), and the higher the number, the closer it is to natural sunlight. So look for a kelvin number between 4100-6500.

Watering and Fertilizing

Always water your containers from the base, allowing them to drink up the water, then pour off any standing water from your tray after a few minutes. Leaving them in standing water can rot the roots, and watering from the top can cause fungus or mold that could kill the seedlings. Water when needed, don’t keep them soggy, but don’t let them dry out!

Your little sprouts will get all the nutrients they need from within the seed and from the seed starting mix, but as they grow they will need a bit more. After your seedlings grow their first pair of “true” leaves (the first pair of leaves you saw were cotyledons or “seed leaves”), start feeding them weekly with a 1/4 strength mix of liquid organic fertilizer.

Potting Up

If you are starting your seeds in very small containers, the roots will become overcrowded and you will need to transplant them into a larger pot. Loosen and lift them out carefully using a popsicle stick or dull knife to lift the soil and roots, and place them into a slightly larger pot. Peat pots are great, but paper cups are a good choice for inexpensive pots (just remember to poke out some drain holes). Add more potting mix, firm the soil lightly and water them in.

Photo of plants shortly before going outside.

When I move the seedlings into their individual pots this year, I will be using all paper cups. Much cheaper than the peat pots, and the deeper cups resulted in a better root system. These were 6oz cups. They held up well and it was very easy to tear the cups off when planting into the garden.

Photo of overcrowded seedlings. I planted way too many.

This pic shows the importance of deciding how many plants you actually need. My indecision last year resulted in a jungle of 62 tomato plants and a plethora of others. I gave away over half of what I started.

Toughen Them Up

A week or two before planting outside you will need to “harden them off”, or strengthen them, by placing them outside in a sheltered shady area. Decrease their watering a bit (don’t let them wilt), and increase their exposure to the sun, rain and breezes gradually over this period. If it decides to turn colder, say, below 45 degrees, bring them back inside until it warms up again.

So, now that you know how to start your seeds, how to nurture them and prepare them for their big debut in your garden, what are you waiting for? Save money, eat healthy and grow your own!



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