Its that time of year that if you haven’t already started your seeds, and you live in say, a zone 5 or 6 climate, you really need to start thinking about starting them! This blog post will talk about what I’ve learned about starting seeds from the last few years–it can be tricky with some plants, but its well worth the experience.
Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year
Why start seeds rather than buy plants?
There are a lot of reasons to start your own seeds, both practically and more energetically. Let’s start by examining the problems with purchasing plants from a nursery.
First, nurseries have different tricks to get plants to appear healthy, and to make them look good to purchase, but in reality, a lot of the plants sold commercially are in a weakened, stressed state. If you pick up a nursery plant, and you see it already flowering, that’s a really bad sign. Why? A flowering plant means that it has already entered its reproductive cycle, rather than staying in its growth cycle for being planted in the earth. Another way that plants get stressed is when they are root bound in their containers (e.g. the roots are up against the sides of the container, even coming out of the bottom). They are already stunted, and transplanting them is further shock and stress. Furthermore, you also have no idea what chemicals and fertilizers were used to grow that plant–but chances are, they are damaging, and may even be fatal to bees and other pollinators. A stressed out nursery plant is going to have a harder time growing into a healthy, productive plant; that same plant may also going to potentially kill bees and other life in your yard (especially in purchased from big box stores). Finally, moving plants spreads disease and can cause you to have a lot more problems during the growing season. I had this happen last year–a friend was gardening with me, and he was running late on his garden, and purchased nursery plants (including tomatoes). I never had problems with blight before, but last year, all my tomatoes blighted badly. I know partly there were energetic reasons for this blight (as my linked blog post explores) but there were also practical ones.
The benefits to starting your own plants from seed are incredible! First, it is much more cost effective to start your plants yourself (even with the initial investment of grow lights or another setup depending on what light you have available). The variety of seeds that you are able to start is far superior to what you will find in a nursery–you can grow any seeds you like, and can also grow seeds that you saved from year to year. I save many seeds, and also purchase new open-pollinated/heirloom varieties to try. The ones that do well, I keep and over the years, these varieties become well adapted to my garden and climate. There is also the importance of establishing a relationship with your plants early and maintaining that relationship throughout the growing season. By starting seed, I am tending that plant through every phase of its life, and there is no greater reward than biting into that first ripe tomato after you’ve started the plant from seed. Seed starting is a magical, alchemical process that deeply benefits the grower.
What do I need to get started?
Seeds. So now that I’ve convinced you to start some seeds this year, what will you need? You’ll need some seeds–you can get these from a number of reputable seed companies (my favorites are Seed Saver’s Exchange, Victory Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and Horizon Herbs) and/or ask friends who garden if they have extra seeds (trust me, they do). You do NOT want to just go and buy seeds off a rack at your local big box store–these seeds are not open pollenated (meaning you can’t save them) and most of the companies that produce the seeds are owned by Monsanto.
Growing medium. You will need some growing medium–its best to start your seeds in some kind of seed starting mix. You can produce your own, or you can buy some locally. We have a small greenhouse near here who does a nice sphagnum moss/soil potting mix, and I usually use that.
Growing flats. You’ll also need some growing flats. Since the big box stores want you buying their plants, you usually can’t find growing flats at the store. I usually get mine by the side of the road during “spring clean up” days, where people throw out their trash in giant heaps. I’ve found most of the tools for my garden and all of the flats I need this way. If you can’t find them, you can purchase them online or through local farmers in your area.
Light and heat. You will need some way for your plants to stay fairly warm (most seeds like to germinate at a temperature between 60-70 degrees). You’ll also need to make sure they are getting adequate light (12-16 hours a day, direct light). Some seeds require light germination (like many herbs) but once they germinate, all require light. If you have a nice southern-facing window, you can put your seeds there (just check that they don’t get too cold at night). If you are like me and have practically no southern windows, you might need a grow light setup (see next area).
Seeds in small cups from my sister’s growing setup!
Water. Your seeds will also need water, so keep this in mind when you are setting up your seed starting area. Seed flats can be doubled with a solid flat on the bottom to avoid having water spill onto the floor.
If you had, say, a spare greenhouse in your yard, this would all be a lot easier. Since most of us don’t have such a thing, we make do with what we have!
Two Sample Seed Starting Setups
Since I’ve been starting seeds for several years, each year I have worked to expand my seed starting operation a bit. I’m pretty happy with what I have now, and I think this is enough for my needs for the foreseeable future (until I get a greenhouse someday!) The seed starting setup I have now has six LED light panels (purchased online, they only give plants the blue and red spectrum and are highly energy efficient), two T5 lights (which use up a lot more energy) attached and housed to a metal rack. I also have two heat mats (my den is cold in the winter and I have trouble with germination without the mats). I have all of the seeds on a wire metal rack inside doubled flats so the water doesn’t drip out. This setup cost several hundred dollars, but I justify it because I use it every year and when I’m not growing seeds in the late fall and winter months, I’m growing microgreens and sprouts using the LEDs! So this setup gets about 8 months of use a year–hence the investment in the LED lights. I wish I had a sunny window in which to grow these kinds of things, but with the way my house is setup, that simply isn’t the case.
My seed growing rack – colorful!
LED lights with onions growing
Timer keeps my plants happy and well lit.
A second setup is something I helped my sister and brother-in-law with. They live in the city, and have limited space for growing things and limited light. This was their first year starting seeds. They had an eastern window, so what we did was plant seeds in small styrofoam cups cut short with holes poked in them (they picked the cups up in the garbage, new). We labeled the cups and placed them on a metal tray with some foil to protect it. Then, to protect from cats and to further trap sunlight, we put box around the cups in the window. We put a small thermometer in the soil, and monitor the soil temperature. If it dips below 35 at night, the window will radiate cold, so they put the plants on a nearby radiator (radiating low amounts of heat). The Styrofoam does provide a good deal of insulation, however. I like this setup a lot because it uses existing energy flows in the house and repurposed existing materials.
Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out
Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)
Researching Seeds & Determining Plant Times
One of the things that can be challenging about starting seeds is figuring out when to start them, how many to start, and what care is needed. Seed packets often contain very general information, and I would recommend researching each plant that you are starting (sub-varieties don’t need to be researched; i.e. all tomatoes are started the same). Knowing something about plant families helps too–for example, I start most alliums (leeks, onions, chives) in late January to get a jump on their long growing time (garlic, of course, is started in the fall).
I’m not going to lie–this process can get overwhelming. I’ve met quite a few novice gardeners (and remember my own experience years ago) with trying to figure out what to plant and when to plant. However, to aid in this process, I have a few suggestions. First, there are seed planting guides out there on the web that can talk you through the basics. In my opinon, however, the web is no substittue for an experienced farmer/gardener–so seek out advice from experts (or really, anyone who has done any growing–we all have knowledge to share). A friend this year gave me her whole biodyamic planting guide (see below), and that was super helpful.
Second, it helps to take the seed research process in stages. Don’t start researching seeds in March when you need to get seeds going–research them in December, by the fire. I love to do this close to the holidays–its the perfect time of year to think about new growth. Then, by January, any new varieties I have researched are done and I have a planting plan moving forward.
The other thing you can do is create note files and spreadsheets. When I helped my sister with her herb garden, we looked up each seed she had and created a word file with information found on the packet and online. Here’s a screenshot of that file. Notice at the very top of that file, we also have a list of her last frost dates. This is critically important to know when to plant (because it tells you when you can set plants out). You count backwards from the average last frost date, and that tells you when to plant seeds.
Sample plant info file
After we had this file (which turned out to be 10 pages for 15 different herbs, still a bit overwhelming because we also compiled growing and harvest info) we broke it down into a more simple spreadsheet with growing and planting instructions. Here’s a screenshot of the spreadsheet. Once the seeds were started, we highlighted them in green. Some of them had to be started a little later or cold stratified (e.g. set in the refrigerator for some time) so they didn’t get started on that day.
Planting by the Signs or Planting by the Moon: Biodynamic and Biointensive Seed Starting
If you are a gardener interested in the more esoteric side of things, you might also want to consider how the movement of the celestial bodies impacts plant growth. There are two approaches that I am aware of to this–biointensive and biodynamic. The biointensive growing approach advocates seed starting on the full moons or the new moons. The biodynamic approach advocates examining the relationships of the planets (using astrology) to determine planting times (among other things). Since the astroweather changes from moment to moment, you need to find a biodynamic calendar (unless you know enough about astrology to calculate it yourself!) I have experimented with both of these approaches, and both have merit, IMHO.
After I plant my seeds, I spend time with them each day monitoring their progress and watching them grow. I find it pleasant to meditate near them, and they also respond well to music that I play from my panflute. Enjoy these early days with your seeds–soon they will be healthy vegetable and herb plants in your garden!
I hope that the ideas presented to you in this blog post can help you make the most of your garden this year! Happy growing!