A garden offers some truly great benefits to those who undertake the task. It is a way to exercise greater control over the food in your diet, allows for greater nutrition and taste, as well as providing exercise for both the body and the mind. Gardening is often the first step people take on their journey to self-sufficiency. The only problem is the garden season can be cut short depending upon where you live.
Beginning your garden with seeds and ending the season with seeds is a way to gain even more control and self-sufficiency, while extending the health and happiness factor provided by your garden. By starting with seeds you have more control over crop timing and can extend the growing season. You also have more say in the crops you grow, as many varieties that are not available in seedlings are available as seeds. If you are interested in growing, eating, and selling organic produce, begin with certified organic seeds, ensuring an organic final product.
In addition to buying certified organic seeds, you also want to make sure you are choosing heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are a must if you want to get reliable results from the seeds you save because they are open-pollinated. The seed saved from open-pollinated plants breed true as long as they do not cross-pollinate with another plant of the same species. But why save seeds from one season to use the next? Because starting your garden from seed is only half the fun. Saving seeds from the healthiest and most vigorous plants in your garden allows you to create strains that are well-adapted to local growing conditions.
Another benefit of starting with seeds is that it is extremely cost-effective. A packet of 100 seeds may cost $3, the cost of one or two seedlings. People often believe you must have a greenhouse in order to successfully pop seeds and are concerned about the cost of that endeavor. The truth is, there are several “greenhouse” options. You certainly can go all out and build a traditional greenhouse, spending as much money as you can afford. Another option is to build a low-cost hoop greenhouse for approximately $50. There is a very thorough tutorial on how to build a hoop greenhouse at www.doorgarden.com.
Lastly, you can opt for a no-cost greenhouse. Sow seeds in a container of your choosing and cover with a large clear plastic bowl. When the weather begins to warm, uncover your plants. Recover at night until nighttime temperatures stay warm enough for the specific seeds you have planted. Another no-cost option is to use a milk jug greenhouse. Simply cut a plastic milk jug around the middle, leaving one side intact. Add drainage holes and wash thoroughly. Add planting medium and sow seeds. Water thoroughly. Use duct tape to secure cut opening and place in an area that gets plenty of sun. Monitor regularly and keep well-watered. Once seedlings have grown their first set of true leaves, they are ready to transplant.
Starting seeds indoors is a three-step process. Step one is when you put your seeds in their flats. First, fill your flat as evenly as possible with a high-quality planting medium. The best “soil” to start your seedlings actually has no soil in it at all. Use a sterile, soil-less mix that is labeled for seed-starting. Water and press in shallow rows, approximately 1/4” deep and two feet apart.
Next, sow the seeds in the shallow rows. Try to space the seeds about 1/2” apart. Cover the seeds with more medium and gently tamp down. Seeds must be in firm contact with the soil in order to germinate. Label your tray with the date and type of seed. Water evenly and cover the flat with plastic wrap.
Finally, place the tray near a heat source or on a seed warming mat. Remove the plastic wrap as soon as the seedlings emerge and place the tray in a sunny spot.
The second step happens when your seedlings are ready to go into their own containers. They are ready to be transplanted into individual containers once they have grown their second set of leaves. Gently loosen the soil beneath a row of seedlings and tug seedlings apart, holding them by their leaves.
Center the seedling in a container that has been filled half-full with planting medium. Add more medium to fill and press to firm around the roots. Water thoroughly. Set a fan up to gently and consistently blow over the seedlings. Good air flow prevents damping off, a fungal infection attributed to excessive moisture and poor air circulation.
The third and final step is a process called hardening off. Hardening off is simply acclimating your seedlings to outside weather conditions. Two weeks before you are ready to move the seedlings into your garden, set them outside in a sheltered spot for a few hours. Gradually increase the amount of time they are outside. They should stay outdoors in their individual containers a full 48 hours before transplanting them in your garden.
Although growing plants from seed is not necessarily difficult, there are some tips you can follow in order to increase your success rate.
PICK THE RIGHT PLANTS – Most plants can be grown from seed. Good bets for beginners wanting to try their hand at starting from seed include basil, broccoli, cauliflower, chives, leeks, lettuce, onions, okra, and peppers.
TIME IT RIGHT – Seeds germinate at different rates so it is a good idea to make a weekly schedule before you start planting. Use a seed-starting chart to ensure you are popping seeds at the most opportune time. You can download a seed-starting chart at YouGrowGirl.com. She has a chart that is filled out for you or a do-it-yourself chart you can download. Both are offered for free.
USE APPROPRIATE CONTAINERS – Any container that is 2-3” deep will suffice. Make sure you punch in drainage holes. Wash thoroughly in hot, soapy water and rinse in distilled white vinegar.
SOW CAREFULLY – Moisten the soil before sowing the seeds. Drop seeds on surface, spacing as evenly as possible. Cover to depth of three times the thickness of seeds unless package directs otherwise.
KEEP THEM WARM – The temperature requirements for germination refer to soil temperature, not air temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and keep them near a heat source or on a warming mat. Most seeds require temperature of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate.
KEEP THEM DAMP – Regularly mist with a spray bottle or set them in trays of water.
LIGHT THEM UP – Move them to a bright spot at the first signs of sprouting. Although most seeds do not need light to germinate, seedlings require 10 to 12 hours of light a day. A south-facing window can work but it usually works better to start your seedlings off under fluorescent lights.
COOL THEM DOWN – As soon as they have germinated, move the flats away from the heat source. To produce stocky plants, keep seedlings around 65 degrees.
SHOW SOME LOVE – Lightly ruffle your seedlings once or twice a day with your hand to help them grow into strong and stocky plants.
PROTECT THEM FROM SHOCK – Acclimate your plants to outside weather conditions two weeks before transplanting.
Before you know it, the seeds you started with will have provided you and your family with a season of delicious, nutritious food. Before you turn your garden under, harvest and store your seeds so you can start your garden with seeds all over again, from scratch.
Annuals are ideal for harvesting seeds because they produce seeds within one growing season. Do not harvest seeds until they are mature. Flowers that are ready to harvest will be dry and faded, or have puffy tops. With few exceptions, such as melon seeds which are ready to harvest when the fruit is ready to eat, most produce should be left on the vine as long as possible. Although you run the risk of losing some of your seeds to critters, it is best to let seeds dry on the vine until the first light frost. In order to ensure seed viability, collect seeds from at least five plants of each variety.
Biennials are a little trickier because they have a three-life-cycle phase.
The first life-cycle phase is vegetative growth. This happens once the seeds are sown and the plants have grown roots, stems, and leaves. Do not look for flowers or seeds. That happens later.
The second life-cycle phase is called vernalization. Though the conditions required for this stage vary by crop, biennials need a period of cold temperatures in order to flower and seed during sexual maturity. Vernalization can be difficult if winter conditions are too warm. On the other hand, if winter weather conditions are extremely harsh, gardeners may need to mulch heavily or dig their biennials up and store them until it is time for them to be replanted.
In order to successfully dig and store biennial roots, pay attention to the three phases they must go through. The plants that overwinter best are the younger plants so for the biennial’s vegetative growth stage, do not use a crop that you planted in the spring. Plant another crop in late summer or early fall.
For the vernalization stage, let these young plants go through a couple of light frosts. These cold temperatures will help spur dormancy. Dig up the plants before the night temperatures fall into the teens. Once you dig up the plants, cut all of the leaves off, taking care not to hurt the stem. Bury in a moistened (not wet) medium such as sawdust, sand, or shredded leaves. Store in the refrigerator until it is time to replant them.
For the reproductive growth and seed production stage, replant the biennial roots as soon as the soil can be worked. Plant the roots in a block pattern for the best chances of good pollination.
Reproductive growth and seed production is the final phase. It is in this final stage that biennials will produce flowers and seeds. The seeds are ready to harvest when the plants or seed pods dry out and the seeds become hard.
Some examples of biennials that are not too difficult for beginners are beet, swiss chard, cauliflower, carrot, celery, kale, kohlrabi, leek, onion, shallot, rutabaga, and turnip.
After going through the effort of harvesting your seeds, you must take care to store them properly. It is probably most important that the seeds you have harvested be kept dry. Store in labeled glass jars or plastic containers. You can use an envelope for seed storage but you must put the envelope in an insect-proof container. Once you have correctly packaged your seeds, store them in a cool, dark place until time to plant. Every 10-degree-Fahrenheit decrease in temperature doubles the seed storage life at temperatures above freezing.
Before planting the seeds you have harvested and stored, check their viability. Most, but not all, seeds can be tested in water. Place the seeds in a glass of warm, non-chlorinated water and let sit for twelve hours. The seeds that float to the top are dead; the seeds that sink are viable.
One other helpful and fun thing I have come to depend on is a propagation journal. It doesn’t matter if you are growing a few flowers, a small kitchen garden, or are running a commercial farm enterprise. I record where the seeds are purchased or when they were harvested, when the seeds are sown, and when they germinate. I note the success rate and the date they were transplanted. When it comes time to make my growing schedule next year, I do not have to rely on my memory. I have the data that allows me to evaluate what went right and where I have room for improvement. I have found that keeping a propagation journal relieves any of the stress that is related to gardening and allows me to focus on the fun and the food.