Learning how to grow plants from seeds is a process every beginning gardener should try. It allows you to experience the life cycle of plants firsthand. It helps you understand what plants need in terms of care and nurturing. Perhaps most importantly, it’s fun!
This article assumes that you’ve never grown plants from seeds before and have no equipment. Can you grow seeds in egg cartons or old containers? Yes. Can you grow them on your sunny window sill? Yes. However, since you’re just starting, we want give your seeds the best possible chance to survive and that means acquiring some basic equipment.
The Cutting Garden
For beginners, we recommend starting with a simple cutting garden filled with annuals. A cutting garden is a garden patch filled with flowers. You cut the flowers when they bloom and put them in a vase. Then, they grow and bloom again. This gives you lovely flowers for your house and friends all summer.
Annuals die within a year but some self-seed, meaning after the plant dies, the seeds fall (or are carried by wind or animals) into the dirt and voila- brand new plants. Amazing, right? And don’t worry, if you don’t have a small patch of land to do this, you can grow the flowers in pots on your deck or balcony.
Of course, you can grow any seeds you like, including vegetables. But since this series is for beginning gardeners, it’s nice to experiment with processes that give you the best chance of success early on.
Basic Equipment for Seed Growing
Seeds. You will need to buy seeds. There are many reputable companies that sell seeds online or in stores. Many of them sell out of their seeds quickly.
Here are a some companies that have seeds readily available:
Here are some of the easiest flowers to grow (in our opinion): false Queen Anne’s lace, cosmos, columbine, morning glory, sunflowers, and Shasta daisies. Choose what appeals to you but do keep in mind that this a simple experiment for learning – not a full garden.
Plug flats. The standard size contains 72 cells but you can get trays with fewer cells. Sow more seeds than you need because a portion of your seeds won’t germinate and a portion will die.
Seed Trays. You will need one seed tray for every plug flat. You can choose a solid bottom (which you can fill with water and allow the plants to drink from underneath) or drain holes (which allow you to water from the top.) We personally start with solid bottom trays because we don’t want to risk washing away the seeds by watering them from the top. As the plant grows, we take the plug flats outside and water them from the top and let the water drain out from the bottom.
Domes. You will need one dome cover for each plug flat and tray. Domes help retain humidity.
Germination Mix. Look for a soil that is specially formulated for growing seeds.
Great news. You can buy these items together in a kit at most garden shops or home improvement stores. We like this kit.
Heating Mats. You’ll need one mat per tray. There are many different types and prices so shop around.
LED Lights. You can buy expensive ‘grow’ lights but LED shop lights are fine. This is what we have for our seeds.
Shelf. You’ll need a shelf. Place your seed trays on the shelf and install the lights 3” above the plant canopy. Make the lights adjustable by attaching them with a string or chain. You’ll need to raise the lights as the seedlings grow. You can buy complete germination stations with shelves but they’re expensive.
Bucket. Seed-starting soil tends to be dry so you’ll need some sort of bucket or container to mix your soil with water until it’s moist.
Vermiculite or Grit. You’ll spread this over the top of your plug flats. It protects the seed but allows the seedling to push through.
Extra pots. You will transplant your seedlings into 3″-5” pots once they sprout.
Water. You’ll need to water the seeds and plants.
Tarp or floor protector. Working with dirt inside can get messy. Protect your floors.
Plant Labels. There are many types available. You can even use popsicle sticks to label plants. Make sure you use a Sharpie so the ink doesn’t wash away.
Good attitude. Some plants live, some plants die. Some seeds don’t work. Sometimes conditions aren’t right for the particular plant. Whatever happens, see the process as an experiment and try again. Gardening, like life, is about resilience.
In a perfect world, you’ll need one seed starter kit per type of seed. Two to four types of seeds are sufficient.
Knowing When to Sow
Your seed packet should tell you how far ahead of the last frost to sow your seeds. You can check your last frost date and your plant’s chance of survival by entering your zip code here. If you sow seeds too early, plants can get leggy /spindly and tend to fall over.
How to Grow
- Mix the soil with water in a bucket until the soil is moist. Fill the plug flats with the moist soil.
- If seeds are tiny, sprinkle one or two on top of each plug flat. (You can also use tweezers to add the seeds). If seeds are larger, use a pencil or chopstick to make a hole in each plug flat and insert the seed and brush or sift a bit of dirt over the top. The seed packet will include sowing instructions.
- Label and date each section as you go along. Otherwise, you’ll forget what you planted. Keep a log of how the plants are doing, as well as what worked and what didn’t.
- Dust seed-filled trays with vermiculite or grit. The smaller the seed, the less you need.
- Place plug flat into the bottom tray, cover with dome, and place on the heat mat. At this stage, they need some light but most seeds don’t technically need to be under the grow lights until they germinate- but some do. Check your seed packet for details. Or, check online to learn more about the requirements of the particular plant you chose. Keep in mind some seeds sprout quickly, others take a long time.
- Fill bottom tray with about 1/2” of room-temperature water. Periodically check to make sure the plants are drinking water. If the plants aren’t drinking water, they can rot.
- Check daily. Once they begin to sprout, remove the dome and the heat mat and place the seedlings with a watering tray under the lights. Keep the lights 2-3” above the plant canopy. You don’t want the plants to have to reach for the light or they get leggy.
Hardening Off and Transplanting
- When the seedlings start to look stronger, you can start to ‘harden them off’ by taking them outside gradually so they get used to the outdoors. You might put them outside for 15 minutes on day one and work your way up to leaving the plants outside for several hours.
- As soon as the plants begin to develop their true leaves, you’re ready to ‘pot on’ or transplant seedlings into 4-6” pots. Make sure you water the plants in advance of this process.
- To transplant, fill your extra pots 1/2-2/3 of the way with organic potting soil, transplant mix, or compost. Loosely hold a leaf and scoop under the plant with a pencil or other thin implement. Lift the plant up gently and out of the tray.
- Place the plant upright in its new pot and add soil around the sides of the plant to nearly fill the container. Repeat this process for each plant and then water the plants with a watering ering can or gentle spray attachment on a garden hose. Feed with an organic fertilizer every 2 weeks.
- Once the plants have grown a bit more and the weather is consistently warm, you can transplant them directly into the ground or into your balcony pots.
Why Plant from Seeds?
There are several reasons why it’s beneficial to grow from seeds.
First, growing from seeds helps you learn how to garden and care for your plants through their entire lifecycle. Second, seeds are much less expensive than full-grown plants. Plus, many plants will self-seed providing you with ongoing flowers. Some plants can even be divided to create more plants. Plus, once you have the set-up, you can use it forever. Moreover, growing indoors gives your seeds a head start on getting your plants into the ground. You’ll see flowers earlier. Finally, it’s fun. What could be more life-affirming than bringing a bunch of flowers into your house to enjoy?
That’s all for now. We’ll be back soon with more information about garden planning.