This year I am starting 120 different kinds of plants including vegetables, herbs, flowers, and pollinator attractants. All in, I'll be growing several thousand plants on about an acre's worth of area.
Plus, I'll be doing it all myself. Because I am not a farmer, with a staff and interns. I'm just a homesteader who grows my own stuff for food, medicine, and beauty.
I do this every year and every year I get a bit better at it. I have modified my systems more times than I can remember. But, the last couple of years, I have really honed my methods and tools to make the process easy and inexpensive.
There are as many great ways to start seeds as there are experienced gardeners. So, my methods are not the only way to get it right.
But if you are new to seed starting and are looking to short cut some of the learning curve, following is some information to get you there faster. These ideas can save you some time and money too!
Strategy 1: Plant Seeds Based on Daylight and Soil Temperatures
I love those lists that tell you start this on X date, and that on Y date. They make seed starting seem so exact and tidy. Problem is, they are very broad approximations and simply aren't going to work in all cases.
Even when you get a planting calendar geared specifically for your region, there can be variations in seed starting dates based on elevation, microclimates, wind patterns, and other factors. Those calendars are a good place to start. But for best results long-term, you'll want to start seeds based your actual conditions.
A number of things impact plant growth such as sunlight, cloud cover, water, soil fertility, etc. However, in terms of when you can plant seeds in the ground or safely transplant young seedlings, the two most important factors are daylight hours and soil temperatures.
When you have limited daylight hours, plants simply won't have enough light to grow fast. With the exception of plants like garlic which can benefit from being fall planted in some climates, most vegetables will grow better when you have at least 6 hours of full sun (excluding dusk and dawn). In fact, 8-10 hours of full light is even better.
Where I live in North Carolina, I have a much easier time starting seedlings in cold frames and our greenhouse from February. Germnation gets much faster as we start to approach the vernal equinox in mid-March.
You can also start things under artificial lights before this for a really early start. Personally, though, I do all my seed starting off grid. So, I wait for natural cues to tell me when to start. Sufficient daylight hours is a biggie for me in my seed starting program.
Just like people, all plants have a comfort zone for temperatures. Some plants like cool soil, others like warm soil, and some like it super hot. If you want to get the best results on your seed starting, then base your seed start or transplant dates on your actual soil temperatures.
As a starting point, the table above is useful to give you an idea of what temperatures plants will grow well at. Usually plants grow best somewhere between the practical and optimal temperatures shown above. However, long-term, you can also start to rely on your own observations and experience.
For example, based on my own experience, I don't bother to put beets in the ground until the soil hits 60 F. Even though beets can survive at lower temperatures, they simply grow too slow to make it worthwhile to plant them early. At lower temperatures, I have to fertilize longer and water and weed more which wastes my time and effort!
– Taking a Temperature Reading
Soil temperatures vary with air temperatures and weather conditions. They also change from day to night. But just like most people, plants rest at night. As such, night temperatures don't have as much impact on plant growth. Also, on dull, rainy days, plants just kind of lounge around being lazy (like I do.)
Plants do their most productive growing on good weather days. So, when taking soil temperatures, you want to take the soil temperature on a nice day that's not a freakish outlier (e.g. not unseasonably warm or cold).
Also, do it around late morning, on a partly sunny to sunny day, when the soil has warmed a bit when conditions. That will give you a representative sampling of soil temperatures (from the perspective of a growing plant) so you can determine whether or not the soil is warm enough to start seeds.
– When to Plant
I take a reading every week and track if for my gardening records. If I have relatively ideal planting temperatures two readings in a row, and no crazy weather conditions on the radar, then I know I am clear to direct seed things in that temperature range.
If you are transplanting an indoor started plant from its cushy, ideal environment and putting it in wild outdoor conditions, warmer soil makes a big difference in plant performance. I usually wait to transplant until soil conditions have been in the upper half of the happy zone for at least 2 readings.
Keep Good Notes
You'll want to wait to plant each year until your day length and soil temperatures are sufficient for good growth. However, it's still nice to have an approximate calendar to work with for planning purposes.
So, I encourage all gardeners to keep a running calendar of when you planted things and what your results were. That will help you plan and prepare in the next year.
Also, when you know the average dates when your soil warms each year, you can reverse calculate good dates for starting your indoor plants too.
Strategy 2: Use Convenient Containers
I have tried all sorts of containers for starting seeds – from wood frames to plastic cells, plug trays, soil blocks, and more. Personally, the easiest to use and most cost-effective seed starting container I have is a dish tub from the dollar store. I just drill some holes in the bottom for drainage.
These last longer than plastic cells. They fit perfectly in the sink so they are easy to sterilize. They are flexible so you can easily get your seedlings out. They have good depth for early root development.
Also, I can write on them. Rather than trying to label each type of seeds I start, I just number my seed starting dish pans 1 to whatever number of trays I am starting. Then, I keep a key to what I plant in my garden journal.
If I do need to trade up to a larger size container before transplanting outside, I like to use re-purposed cans. They are only good for a couple uses before they start to rust. Still, at least they get a second life in the garden.
We don't eat a lot of canned food, so friends and family save these for me. They love knowing that they are being put to good use on our homestead.
All you need to do to turn a tin can into a seed starting pot is use a can punch opener to pop some drainage holes in the bottom. Then, you can use a permanent marker to write the name of the plant on the outside of the can.
Note: When the cans are no longer useful for seed starting, use them as a noise-making garden deterrent to keep deer out.
Strategy 3: Start Extras
Some seeds take weeks to germinate. So, rather than spend all that time waiting, only to find out fewer seeds germinated than expected, start extras every time.
If you end up with more plants than you need, then you can choose your strongest, most vigorous seedlings to transplant or keep growing. Having more plants to choose from increases your odds of raising the best performers from your seed packets in your garden.
Transfer your unused extras to tin cans to trade or give to friends and family. Or, keep a few plants growing in those tin cans as backups just in case. That way if a rabbit eats your in-ground seedlings, or a storm rips out your recent transplants, you've got ready replacements.
Strategy 4: Don't Thin, Snip!
Many people under-seed because they dread thinning. But, I don't thin, I snip! I use beard-trimming scissors to snip out the extra seedlings. That way I don't disturb the roots of the plants I plan to let grow.
By the way, you can eat many of your snippings. Avoid eating nightshade seedlings (e.g. tomato, pepper, eggplant). But all your extra cole crop (cabbage, kale, broccoli), lettuce, pea, radish, and many other seedlings make great microgreens!
Strategy 5: Plant Seeds in Compost
I have tried all sorts of homemade planting mixes. Most of them contain things that I don't want to use like perlite, vermiculite, or peat moss. Those substances require extensive environmental resources to produce, so I steer clear of them.
Personally, my favorite seed starting medium is well-aged, sifted compost. Compost that has been sifted to remove larger particles is light enough in texture for young seedlings to grow well. Yet, it is also heavy enough that young plants grow strong, rather than wimpy, roots.
As long as it is well-aged (e.g. 1 year or more), the nutrients compost provides are just about perfect for young seedlings. Good compost has the perfect pH for the garden (e.g. around 6.5). It also holds moisture really well, so I don't have to water as often.
Plus, compost is something I use to grow all my food already. So, when I transplant seedlings into my garden beds, I am not introducing things that aren't already there (like chemical fertilizers).
Oh, and I can make compost easily at home. That saves me from having to buy expensive seed starting mixes!
Strategy 6: Fertilize When You Water
Seedlings don't have deep established root systems at the start. So, to ensure they have access to good nutrients when they need them, fertilize when you water.
You don't even need to buy liquid fertilizer to nourish your seedlings. Compost tea made from the same compost you planted in or from worm castings works really well for this purpose.
By soaking the compost in water, you activate the nutrients and make them water-soluble. This makes them more bio-available to the seedlings.
Also, make sure to water only when the soil needs it. Watering too much causes nutrients to leach out and puts unnecessary stress on young plants.
Giving your plants the best chance at success by using good seed starting strategies will make your job as a gardener a lot easier. You'll spend less time starting seeds and more time growing big, beautiful plants if you do it well.
Good luck getting started in the garden this year!