Thank you to Farmer Jim at Texas Eco Farms for his expertise used in this article
Starting your own seeds has several advantages over using transplants. Although starting from transplants may be more convenient, starting from seeds provides more control, lower cost, and greater satisfaction. Below are some things to consider when deciding whether or not you should start from seed or purchase transplants instead.
Level of experience: It is recommended that beginners buy transplants, which are easier to manage. However, keep in mind that some vegetables such as carrots and radishes perform better when started from seed and you should research what fertilizers or pesticides were used.
Location: Seeds are either started directly in the ground, known as direct-sowing, or externally. Starting seeds externally or indoors allows you to extend the growing season, which is helpful in colder climates or for vegetables with long maturity times. In warmer regions, this allows you to avoid scorching heat that can wither your crops. Transplants do not have as much flexibility, but are more resilient to start.
- Type of vegetable: Not all seeds should be started indoors. Crops that are best started external to their final growing space include onions, brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, and tomatoes. Vegetables that can be started externally but must be carefully transplanted include celery, cucumber, peas, and pumpkin. Seeds that should be started in-ground include beans, beets, corn, and carrots, as their roots can become disturbed during transplanting, which can hinder growth.
To start seeds in seedling trays, you will need some basic supplies. Below is a list of materials needed. These supplies can have a wide range of costs, but do not feel the need to spend more than your budget allows; simple tools will work just fine. Find the best price point for your budget.
Containers and drip trays: You can start seedlings in a variety of containers as long as it allows for good drainage. The easiest option is to purchase a seed starting tray with cells; Vego Garden will be releasing an expertly designed version soon. Containers designed specifically for seed starting have the benefit of reusability for several years and can be found in most nurseries, gardening supply stores, and select online retailers. Instead, you can also repurpose common household items such as egg cartons as trays. If possible, try to choose materials that are biodegradable, which include standard egg cartons. Drip trays are just as essential to successful seed starting. Make sure the method you choose includes a drip tray beneath the seedling tray.
Fluorescent or LED grow lights: Supplemental lighting is essential in the germination process, especially if you are growing plants that require many hours of direct sunlight. Although there are high-end kits available, you can purchase cheaper fluorescent lighting, commonly used in basements and workshops. You can use T12 or T8, but T5 and LED grow lights are the most efficient.
Spray bottle or mister: A spray bottle helps gently dispense water to seedlings and keep the soil damp without disrupting the soil structure. Any type of gentle or indirect watering tool will work.
Soil mix: Seed starting soil mix should be light-weight, moisture retaining without becoming compact or dense. These mixes can be composed of materials such as peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, compost, or limestone. Vermiculite and perlite are both volcanic minerals that readily absorb nutrients and will enhance your seed starting soil. Potting soil is not recommended, as it contains large debris that inhibits the growth of plants. You can buy commercially available starting soil or make your own. A simple mixture of equal parts peat moss and vermiculite is a common combination.
Heat mats or lamps (optional): Heat mats and lamps, specifically designed for plants, can be obtained at your local nursery or garden store. They will increase the chances of germination. They aren’t necessary, but can be useful in providing a balanced, regulated heat source for your seed trays. You can remove the heat mat once the seeds have germinated, they are only needed to start the seedlings.
Seeds: You should choose local, organic seeds whenever possible, as the plant is already suited to your growing environment and hardiness zone. Seeds can be obtained from many external sources or can be from heirloom or hybrid plants of previous harvests. Before planting, consult your seed packet or online resources for the optimal time to begin sowing and whether the plant should be planted in trays or in their final spot.
Plant labels: Labels, which can be cheaply made from tape, paper, or be store-bought, will help you identify the plant in each cell. This step is even more important for larger undertakings.
Once you have gathered all your materials, you are ready to start sowing. Below are the steps to follow:
- Moisten seed starting soil mix until it feels like a damp rag, you should just barely be able to squeeze a drop of water out of it. This is what is known as field capacity.
- Fill your seed starting trays or containers with the soil mix at about two-thirds full. Don’t pack it tightly – the soil should remain aerated and relatively loose. Drop the tray a few times to settle the soil. Top off any low spots, but remember not to overpack it or fill it too loosely. Overpacked soil will mean there is not enough oxygen circulating and the seeds will get waterlogged. Soil packed too loosely will not have enough structure for solid rooting and will dry out too quickly.
- Next, plant your seeds at the proper depth. Carefully read the instructions of your seed packs to understand the correct conditions for germination. Some seeds may need pre-soaking or exposure to light to grow and other special needs, so make yourself aware of these before starting. Make a shallow hole in each cell using your finger, a pencil, or a dibbler. A good guideline is to plant the seed twice as deep as its longest side. For example, a 0.5” long pumpkin seed should be planted at around 1” of depth. Place 1-2, even 3 seeds in each hole. This will increase the chances of successful germination.
- Cover the seeds with your seed starting soil mix, gently pressing it into each hole to ensure seed to soil contact. Gently mist your seed tray with a water sprayer or mister until the surface is damp. Add in labels on the tray itself or on the surface of its designated resting area.
- To finish off the initial day of sowing, cover your tray(s) with clear plastic and place it on a heating mats, in a seedling greenhouse, or other warm controlled area; some options are on top of the refrigerator or near a radiator. As long as they are stored in a warm, draft free spot that can be monitored daily.
- Monitor your plants. Remove the cover when ½ of the seedlings have emerged and move it near an indirect light source. Once they have begun to sprout, place them in a sunny location or under grow lights. Suspend the lights about 2 – 3 inches over the seedlings. The standard ideal room temperature is between 65 – 75 °F. Keep the lights on 12 – 16 hours per day. Be mindful of your seedlings appearance and soil moisture level and always refer to your seed packet for proper temperature and care instructions.
Care: Once your seedlings have grown one or two sets of true leaves, begin thinning your plants. Choose the healthiest looking plants and snip off the others at the root line. Also start fertilizing with a water-soluble fertilizer once two sets of leaves have emerged. Dilute it to ¼ the amount and apply it every two weeks.
Start watering with a mister or spray bottle. After the plants have been growing for a while, you can use a watering can with a rain nozzle instead. Check them daily and water if necessary, this can be done overhead or from below by filling the drip tray about a quarter of the way up the cells. The photo above is an example of a large seed starting setup with chrome wire shelves and led shop lights.
Transplanting: Harden off your seedlings before transplanting to gradually acclimate them to the outdoors. Move your seedlings to a protected location for a few
After your seedlings have hardened off, they are ready to be transplanted. Refer to your seed packet for specific transplanting dates and instructions. Prepare your garden beds by clearing it free of debris. Carefully remove the seedling from its pot and place it into the hole you have dug. Water well and continue to water frequently until the seedlings have become established.
- Keep seeds moist until germination, do not let them dry out!
- After sprouting they need light or they will stretch out in search for light, so be intentional about their accessibility to natural sunlight or create this light source with grow lights.
- After the roots fill the cells of the tray, they are ready for transplanting as long as weather is appropriate for the crop.
By following these general guidelines set out by Farmer Jim, your seedlings are sure to flourish. Remember to be patient with yourself and your plants. For more information about Texas
Eco Farms and the work that Farmer Jim does, check out www.texasecofarms.com. Vego Garden thanks Farmer Jim and Cultivator Ara for all they do for us and the greater Houston community.