Starting a garden from seed is one of the most fulfilling and, at the same time, intimidating projects for gardeners. I say that because when I hold tiny seeds in my hand, I have unbridled optimism of what garden potential is in store. When you start with seeds, you are on a level playing field with every other seed starter on the planet. We all are subject to the same laws of nature surrounding light, heat, water, and nutrients. The trick is understanding those elements so you, as the garden steward, can respond when anything is off. It's a bit more complicated than putting seed in dirt and water well...sometimes that does work, but let's outline the basic steps to seed starting success.
Gathering your tools
There are hundreds of options out there when it comes to what you need. So let me simplify that retail noise by outlining what seeds need to grow.
First of all, they need some medium to grow in. The purpose of the soil at this stage is to keep the seed from drying out and provide channels for newly sprouted roots to anchor and grow away from light. Soil mediums marketing for seed starting are made of things that hold moisture but are not dense. These premade mixes are usually a mix of peat moss and perlite. There is much debate about the sustainability of using peat moss as it is a mined substance, and I am definitely on the hunt for alternatives like coco coir as a better option. Many people are working hard to find other options, and as I come across reliable information, I will share that.
Next, we need containers to grow things in. These said containers need drainage. That's pretty much it. But I do have a few thoughts for you to consider here. Seed starting mix's light texture means it dries out quickly. Keep that in mind when you think about trying unique containers. Things like egg cartons will work, but the paper material they're made from speeds up the drying out process. Your best bet for starting seeds inside is to use either plastic containers with drainage (either designed for seeds or repurposed food-grade containers with added drainage) or leap into the world of soil blocking. Soil blocking is nothing new, but it is definitely a technique that is gaining popularity, and for a good reason. I recently made an episode of Ask a Garden Coach about Soil Blocking. Check it out, and feel free to leave me questions about that process.
Let's Plant Seeds
Growing from seed is all about timing. Plant your seeds too soon, and you will end up with a dining room forest full of huge plants that often struggle to get established when you transplant them out. Plants experience the least amount of environmental shock when they are small. I'm talking 2-3 sets of true leaves. On the other hand, if you plant your seeds too late, you won't have enough ideal growing season to get a harvest.
You can spend your time figuring all of this out yourself, and because of how different the microclimates of every garden can be, I encourage you to take notes as you do it! Find your garden rhythm. But even with that rhythm, it's not going to be more than a week off from when everyone else near you is growing. So pay attention! Most seed companies and non-profits have seed planting calendars available that make it simple. The key here is to make sure whatever chart you use is meant for where you live. Do Not simply go by USDA Hardiness Zones. I grow in Zone 8b, the same as people in Charleston, but we don't start seeds at the same time because my temperate, cool spring means I don't warm up as quickly. Local is best.
When it's time to sow seeds, get your sunny spot set up. The more light, the better! Grow lights may not be necessary, but I will never go back to filling my window ledges again. I don't have anything fancy. It's a simple, mini greenhouse with grow lights attached to each shelf. I have it sitting in our unheated garage (ambient temperature is about 40F). During the day, the grow lights warm the greenhouse to ~70F. At night, I turn the light off, which allows the temperature to cool, mimicking the natural temperature cycle plants grow outside. I'm getting lovely green leaves and short stems when I combine that with keeping my seedlings the right distance from the lights. They look great!
Plant seeds by following the directions on the packet they came in. That is unless you were given them in a seed swap or garden friend. Not to worry, the internet is your friend! Just type in the seed you are looking to plant, and you'll have lots of info at your fingertips. And don't overlook those seed catalogs! I save mine because many of them are chock-full of helpful growing guides and charts.
I hope you found this information useful, and if it sparked any questions, feel free to send them my way by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I will share tips on caring for your seedlings, explain common problems, and cheer you on to transplant time.