Starting a Garden from Seed

Starting plants from seed is the most economical way to grow a garden.  Buying plants from a nursery that are ready to be directly planted into your garden beds may save time or be good for a first-time gardener.  However, if the goal is to grow large amounts of food, it is wise to consider growing from seed.  A single plant from your local nursery may cost as much as three to four dollars or more.  On the other hand, a seed packet costs the same or even less and can grow into 25 or even hundreds of plants.  

The following is a basic guide to starting a garden from seed and what you will need to be successful.

Seed Starting Equipment

Growing from seed can be simple or complex.  Growing a garden from seed is as easy as placing seeds in the ground, covering them, and watering.  However, if you want to grow large numbers of plants it is best to use a few pieces of equipment to ensure high success.

These are essential seed germinating items:

  • 1020 Seed trays
  • Seed starting mix purchased or homemade
  • High-quality seeds
  • Seeding heat mat that fits 1020 trays
  • Cover for seeds that require additional humidity

Check craigslist or other free resources for your community to find trays and pots for growing plant starts in.

Seeding Basics

There are a few important steps to increase success when starting a garden from seeds.  Planning when to start seeds is a critical step.  On the back of every seed packet will provide some guidance for when to plant.  Along with details highlighting how long the plant will take before it matures and starts fruiting or is ready for harvest.  Depending on your climate and what you are starting from seed it might be important to start the plants indoors.  In North America, it is a common practice to start tomatoes and peppers and other long-growing summer season crops indoors or in a greenhouse.  Find a local planting calendar for your bioregion and follow their guidance.

Plants started indoors will require supplemental lighting to be successful and will need to be hardened off prior to planting.  Hardening off seedlings is simply the process of slowly exposing the plants to the sun, wind, and regular weather.  Ultimately, this is about a week-long process to get the plants adapted to the natural world.  

Germination & Germination Chambers

Germinating plants is the process of getting them to start growing.  In order to grow a seed needs a moist soil medium and sometimes a heat source.  Plants such as tomatoes and peppers appreciate being placed on a heat mat increasing the temperature of the soil.  While plants such as lettuce, kale, and broccoli do not need a heat source to germinate.  As soon as the initial leaves (cotyledons) emerge from the ground they will need to be under light, either the sun or grow lights.  

A germination chamber is a piece of equipment that gives seeds the perfect environment to emerge and break the surface of the soil.  The chamber is designed to provide consistent moisture in the soil. Given that dry soil is one of the biggest causes of poor seed germination.  In general, growers at the urban homestead level do not require a sophisticated germination chamber.  Here is a guide for a DIY germination chamber if you want to build one.  Alternatively, a plastic dome can be placed over the seed trays to trap in the humidity from watering the soil.  This helps regulate the moisture and reduce drying out.  

Placing plastic bowls or containers over seeds being planted directly into the ground is an option that can be helpful when directly seeding a small number of plants in a community garden allotment or other small garden settings.

Seeding Indoors vs. Outdoors in Native Soil

What to do, seed indoors or outdoors directly into native soil?  That depends a lot on what you are growing and your climate.  Plants like peppers, cucumbers, or kale and lettuce work very well when seeded indoors and brought outside at the appropriate time to be transplanted.  On the other hand plants like carrots, corn, or radishes are best directly seeded.  Like anything in life there are exceptions to the rules and so it is always wise to experiment and find out what works best for you in your context.  

That is the beauty of planting with seeds.  You have the ability to experiment with everything with very little risk.  If a seed does not germinate you are not out a lot of money.  Transplant a store-bought pepper plant at the wrong time and it may be stunted for life and never grow.  Grow a couple of trays of peppers and if you lose one or two due to transplant shock and you will still be knee-deep in pepper at the end of the summer growing season.

Seed Sources

The source of seeds is very important.  There are lots of cheap seeds that can be found in big box stores and grocery markets during the spring.  If you are planning on growing large numbers of crops and need to ensure a high germination rate, it is advised to purchase from a quality seed producer.  The best seed companies will include the date the seeds are packed and the expected germination rate.  Not every seed is going to grow into a plant.  However, it is a big difference when planting out a large crop if 50% of the seeds grow or 97% of the seeds grow.

The following are a few of the best online seed sources that we use for our gardens.

There are lots of other large and small seed companies.  These are the ones that we have found that offer the best quality and varieties that we want to grow on our homestead.  Finding local seed companies in your region is a great way to support local small businesses and seed-saving farms.  Every region needs seed companies focused on nurturing and producing seed of crops that are adapted to success in their bioregion so support small seed companies where you live as much as possible.

Starting a garden from seed is one of the biggest rewards for an urban homesteader.  From wedding to watering to nurturing to harvest, be a part of every aspect of growing delicious food.  There will be ups and downs with learning how to germinate seeds and grow baby plants into large mature plants, but that is what makes it so rewarding.