Written by Jaz Popa
Spring has sprung! That means it’s time for fresh produce and gardening! One of the hardest parts about growing your own food is getting your seeds to sprout into healthy plants.
Seedlings, also known as transplants or starter plants, are young plants grown from seeds. Transplanting seedlings, rather than growing plants in their permanent location from seeds (sowing plants), is beneficial because it allows you to select the strongest plants and space them out appropriately. This ensures that each plant will receive the same growing conditions and will be their most fruitful. This is especially beneficial when you’re growing in a region with a short growing season, such as Michigan. This way you can grow your seedlings indoors and then transplant them to their permanent location when the soil warms up. This allows the plants to be mature enough by plant out time for them to be abundantly fruitful and for you to get the most out of your growing season!
Growing your own garden can be intimidating, but with these simple steps, you’ll be a pro gardener in no time!
- GATHER YOUR SUPPLIES!
To grow your own seedlings, you really only need a few basic things. You will definitely need fresh seeds of your choice, potting soil, potting containers, and a strong light source. Some additional things that aren’t required, but could be beneficial, are plastic coverings, a fan, a timer, and a grow light.
- Every seed requires different growing conditions, so as a beginner, it might be wise to start by just growing a few varieties. Tomatoes, marigolds, basil, and zinnias are especially easy to start indoors. Once you master those, then try moving on to fussier seeds.
- When it comes to containers, almost anything will work as long as it’s about 2-3 inches deep and has drainage holes. Drainage holes are crucial because this allows water to drain freely from the soil so oxygen can reach the roots. This also prevents against rot and fungus or bacteria growth. For containers, you can use things around your house such as paper cups, toilet paper rolls, milk cartons, or yogurt cups. Just don’t forget to add drainage holes! You can also easily purchase seedling trays from just about any store that sells gardening supplies or even the dollar store!
- When preparing the soil, make sure it is specifically made for growing seedlings. Don’t use soil from your garden or re-use potting soil you have used for something else. You want to start with fresh, sterile soil to ensure healthy, disease-free seedlings.
- You also want to make sure your seeds are relatively fresh. Seeds can usually be viable for a few years, but each seed is different. If the seeds haven’t been stored in a cool, dark place, they likely won’t germinate well after a year or two. If you’re unsure if your seeds are viable, you can try a few things. Check out this site to learn about germination tests.
2. READ YOUR SEED PACKETS!
- The seed packets you purchase will tell you when to start growing your seeds, the best ways to germinate them, germination rates, how deep to plant your seeds, and how far to space your plants.
- Finding out when you should be planting your seeds is crucial. If you plant your seeds too early, they could be killed by an unexpected frost. But if you plant them too late, they might not have enough time to mature causing them to be unproductive. If your seed packets don’t tell you when to plant, check out this planting calendar that is based on your location.
- However, some seeds are best started outdoors such as beans, squash, and poppies. Check out what the seed packet says. If this is the case, they are usually marked “direct sow”. For these seeds, just plant them in their permanent location outside rather than starting seedlings.
- Pro Tip: Always keep your seed packets so you can refer back to them throughout the growing process!
3. PLANT YOUR SEEDS!
Now it’s time to start planting!
- An optional first step is to soak your seeds in a shallow container of water over night. This is thought to improve germination rates. If you do soak your seeds, don’t worry about soaking tiny seeds such as those for lettuce and greens. They are easy to lose and usually have a high germination rate anyway. Check out the germination rate on the seed packet you kept to help you decide if you want to soak your seeds or not.
- Next, you want to moisten your potting soil. You want the soil to be moist but not soaking wet. Aim for crumbly soil that holds together when you squeeze it, not muddy.
- Then fill your containers with your moist soil. Firmly pack it in to prevent gaps.
- Next, add your seeds! Grab those seed packets you saved and remind yourself on how your seeds should be planted. Some small seeds can just be sprinkled on top, but larger seeds often need to be buried. If the seeds need to be buried, try making small divots in the soil, dropping the seeds in, then covering with more soil. For larger seeds, try planting 1-2 seeds per planting container (also known as a cell). For smaller seeds, plant about 6 seeds per cell. You can check the seed packet you saved to see if it tells you exactly how many seeds to plant per cell as well. If more than one seed per cell germinates, cut the smallest ones and leave the largest one to continue to grow.
- After your seeds are planted, moisten the soil with a mister or small watering can.
- Pro Tip: To speed up germination, cover your pots with plastic wrap to help keep the seeds warm and moist. Once you see any green, remove the plastic to prevent fungal growth.
4. PROVIDE OPTIMAL CONDITIONS!
- Now, you must keep your seedlings moist. You can use a mister or watering can. You don’t want to over saturate the soil. Keep it moist, not soggy. Check your seed packets again. Sometimes they also tell you how often your plants should be watered, but not always. If the packet doesn’t say, you can always do some research online to see what other gardeners recommend. However, a good rule of thumb is to let the soil just begin to dry out before you water again. You don’t want to wait too long and have the soil be bone dry, but you also don’t want to over water. Once the soil lightens in color slightly and feels slightly dry to the touch, it’s usually time to water again.
- It is also important to keep your seedlings at an appropriate temperature. Usually, the temperature of inside your home will be sufficient, but check your seed packets to be sure they have the optimal growing temperature.
- Seedlings require a lot of strong light. If you are growing your plants by a window, make sure it has south facing sun exposure. Rotate your pots regularly so that your seedings don’t lean into the light. You need to make sure your plants are receiving enough light. Otherwise, they will be leggy and weak. If you don’t have a strong natural light source, I recommend that you invest in a grow light. There are many different options of grow lights. Fluorescent shop lights are inexpensive, but effective. You can find more information on them here or here. If you do use a grow light, it will be convenient for you to get a timer. Set the lights on the timer for 15 hours per day. If you don’t get a timer, be sure to turn the lights off. Plants need darkness. As the plants grow, raise the grow lights. Keep the lights a few inches taller than the plants.
- You also want to ensure that your seedlings receive good air flow. Placing them by an open window during the day would be perfect. However, if it’s too cold or this is not possible, using a fan during the day will get the job done! If you have a timer and/or grow light, you can set the fan up to be on the same timer as your grow light.
- Most potting soils contain very few nutrients. So, a few weeks after your seeds germinate, you will want to add some type of fertilizer to provide your plants with the nutrition they need to grow! If you have access to reliable compost, you can use that. If not, using packaged liquid fertilizer is a great way to go. Just be sure to follow the instructions on the package.
5. NOW MOVE YOUR PLANTS OUTSIDE!
- You don’t want to move your seedlings directly from the indoors to their permanent location outside. You have protected these plants and they need a gradual transition to the elements of the great outdoors. This is a process called hardening off. A week before you plan to move your seedlings into your outdoor garden, put them outside in a protected area for a few hours each day and bring them inside at night. You want to put them somewhere that’s partly shaded and protected from wind. Throughout the week, gradually expose them to more sunshine and wind each day.
- After your seedlings have hardened off, it’s time to transplant! Grab those seed packets you saved and remind yourself at what distance your seedlings should be planted and spaced. Plant your seedlings accordingly and congratulations! You have successfully started a strong and fruitful garden!
With these five simple tips, you will be a pro gardener in no time! Happy planting!