Start seeds indoors before spring and then transplant into the garden when the weather warms.
Each spring, garden-supply stores and nurseries are stocked full of tender young vegetable plants ready and waiting to be transplanted into your home garden. What if you can’t find the quantity and varieties you want, though? It’s disappointing when you can’t get your hands on Japanese eggplant or habanero peppers. How about the fancy heirloom tomatoes you read about? Learn to grow plant starts at home, and you can make sure your vegetable garden will include all of your desired veggie varieties.
Skipping that trip to the nursery will save you money on your garden this year, too. Although little transplants cost just a few dollars each, the total quickly adds up. In comparison, a packet of seeds usually costs around $2. With that, plus the additional investment in supplies and your time, you can grow a whole garden’s worth of plants.
Learning to grow plant starts from seed is very easy. In fact, it only takes correct timing. You’ll need to start your seeds early enough so they are ready to transplant in the spring. This year, when those seed catalogs stuff your mailbox, get ready. It’s almost time to begin planning for planting season!
Seedling Supplies and Tips
You’ll need a few supplies to successfully grow plant starts from seed. The bare-minimum requirements include seed-starting trays or small pots for your seedlings and a good-quality seed-starting mix. If you decide to invest in more equipment, consider customized trays, heated propagation mats (manufacturers say these cause faster germination, higher success rates and faster growth) and grow lights.
You can reuse all kinds of containers for seed starting. Suggestions include the clear, hinged-lid containers found at restaurants or delis or yogurt and cottage cheese containers. Whichever items you reuse for seed-starting, make sure they are clean and have drainage holes in the bottom.
Think about where you will you set up your at-home seedling nursery. Because most vegetables need warm temperatures to germinate and grow, place your seed-starting spot in a warm location with some direct sunlight.
When you are ready to plant your seeds, thoroughly moisten the seed-starting mix with lukewarm water. Fill the seed-starting trays or small individual pots with seed mix. Place the seeds on top of the soil, and lightly cover them with additional soil, following the specific planting instructions on your seed packets, too. Water lightly, and cover with a tray cover or ordinary plastic kitchen wrap to increase the humidity. Clearly label your plants with the variety and date sown.
It is very important to keep the soil moist—but not soggy—throughout the germination period. Remove the tray cover or plastic wrap when sprouts appear. With warmth, sunlight and water, your plant starts soon will begin to grow and flourish.
Here are some foolproof instructions to help you grow plant starts of some of the most common garden vegetables.
Start tomato seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last predicted frost in your area. Tomato seeds require temperatures above 60 degrees F for germination and thrive when placed on a heated propagation mat. (This isn’t necessary, however.)
For best results, use seed-starting mix in a seed tray with a cover. Place seeds at least 2 inches apart. Keep seeds moist, and use the tray’s cover to increase humidity until the seeds germinate. When their first true leaves (leaves that appear after the first leaves) show up, transplant the seedlings into 4-inch-round pots filled with seed mix. Handle the seedlings carefully by the leaves, rather than the stems, to avoid damage.
Continue to keep the soil moist as your tomato plants grow, and monitor the seedlings’ root growth. Starts can be transplanted again into larger pots if the roots become crowded.
Transplant tomatoes outside in rich, well-drained soil after all danger of frost has passed and seedlings have been hardened off. Dig holes deep enough to bury the tomato plants at least up to their first sets of leaves. Space tomato plants at least 24 inches apart, and provide support for growing plants using stakes.
Sow pepper seeds indoors eight weeks before the last predicted frost. Peppers are heat-loving plants and do best when grown on a heated propagation mat. Peppers like temperatures of 80 degrees F during germination and prefer growing conditions around 65 to 70 degrees F. If you don’t have a propagation mat, you still can grow peppers successfully by mimicking these conditions as closely as possible. For instance, placing the seed tray on top of a water heater or refrigerator can provide some heat.
For best results, use standard seed-starting mix in a seed tray with a cover. Place pepper seeds at least 2 inches apart. Keep seeds moist, and use the seed tray’s cover to increase humidity until the seeds germinate. Transplant the pepper seedlings into 4-inch pots filled with seed mix when they have their first true leaves.
Starts can be transplanted again into larger pots if the roots become crowded before it’s time to plant them outside. When your garden soil’s temperature reaches 65 degrees, all danger of frost has passed and seedlings have been hardened off, plant the peppers in the garden, spacing them 12 to 14 inches apart.
Plant eggplant seeds indoors eight to 10 weeks before the last predicted frost. Like peppers, eggplants love heat, especially during germination. Eggplant seeds take one to two weeks to germinate at temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees F. A heat-propagation mat helps, and soaking eggplant seeds in warm water for 24 hours before planting can assist with germination. Although they might be a little tricky to get started, eggplants do well in warm conditions once established.
For best results, use seed-starting mix in a seed tray with a cover. Place eggplant seeds at least 2 inches apart. Keep seeds moist, and use the tray’s cover to increase humidity until the seeds germinate. Transplant the seedlings into 4- to 6-inch pots when they have two sets of true leaves. Do not let seedlings dry out or become root-bound.
Starts can be transplanted again into larger pots if the roots become crowded before it’s time to plant them outside. Transplant the starts into the garden once nighttime temperatures consistently reach above 55 degrees F, all danger of frost has passed and seedlings have been hardened off. Space approximately 2 feet apart. Keep eggplants well-watered through the growing season to prevent bitter-tasting fruit.
Broccoli seeds germinate easily at temperatures as low as 50 degrees F. Start broccoli seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost to get a head start on the growing season.
For best results, fill individual 4-inch pots with moist seed-starting mix. Place two or three broccoli seeds on top of the soil, and cover lightly with additional soil. Keep the seeds moist during germination, covering the pots if possible until sprouts appear—usually within seven days.
When the broccoli is about 1 inch tall, thin the seedlings to keep the most vibrant plants. Transplant hardened-off broccoli plants outside just before the last frost date, spacing them 2 feet apart. Keep broccoli plants moist during the growing season.
Cabbage seeds germinate readily indoors at temperatures of around 55 to 60 degrees F. Start your cabbage seedlings five to six weeks before the last frost date in your area.
Fill 4-inch pots or a seed tray with seed-starting mix, and place cabbage seeds about 2 inches apart. Plant both short-season and long-season varieties for a successful harvest, if desired.
Transplant cabbage plants during the spring and early summer after they have been hardened off. Allow at least 2 feet between plants so large heads can develop. Cabbage can withstand a light frost, so don’t worry about strictly steering clear of cold temperatures. Cabbages grow best in cooler weather of around 59 to 68 degrees F and should not be transplanted when temperatures reach 77 degrees F or above.
About the Author: Lindsay Evans is a writer, teacher and mother living in rural north-central Washington. In addition to gardening and food preservation, her interests include skiing, baking and enjoying time with her family.
Excerpt from Vegetable Gardens, Spring Edition part of the Popular Gardening Series, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing, LLC. Purchase Vegetable Gardens, Spring Edition, here.