by Karl Schmidt
Every time I go down to my basement and think about the little seedlings that will soon pop up their little heads from the flats I’ve set out, under the light of fluorescent bulbs, and warmed gently from below by seedling mats, I imagine spring is just around the corner. It’s not, of course. The temperature outside is 35 degrees and snow is falling. But the seedlings represent many things to me, including hope.
Growing your own seedlings indoors from seed isn’t terribly difficult, but it does take a bit of planning, a few resources, and a commitment of some time. I imagine that most people might not think the effort worth it, even if they do grow a food garden. When I mention that I start many of my plants from seed indoors, people are often surprised and wonder why I don’t just go down to the local garden center or nursery and buy them.
While it is certainly more expedient to do so, buying plants from a nursery has its downsides, too. Chief among them is that you can’t buy organic plants from most retail nurseries. They typically get their resale stock from larger wholesale nurseries who grow millions of plants, and who use artificial fertilizers and other chemicals to get the plants nice and stocky for sale. Who hasn’t marveled at the half-inch thick tomato plant stalks at the local garden center? My plants don’t look like that, but then I don’t use chemicals. So, if you want organically-grown plants, you won’t likely find them at your local nursery.
Another reason to start your plants from seed is the ability to choose your varieties. Plant nurseries typically offer what they think people will buy. Much of that has to do with people’s experience with plants. If people are used to seeing ‘Black Beauty’ eggplants at the local grocery, that’s also the same variety that will likely sell well at the local nursery. But there are so many more varieties of eggplant to choose from, including a wide range of colors (even white—hence the origin of the plant’s name), if one is willing to start from seed. This is true for so many varieties of food plants. Go to your local nursery and look around. And then look at a good seed catalog. You’ll be amazed at the wider range of options if you grow from seed.
Lower cost is also a reason to start your own plants from seed. While there are some initial start-up costs involved in starting from scratch, they will quickly pay for themselves in terms of varieties available. Depending upon the size of the plant you buy at a nursery, they can sometimes be $5 or more a piece. If you buy 10 plants of that sort, you’ve paid the cost of a seedling mat that will serve you for some years to come. Seeds themselves are relatively inexpensive. So, if you’re willing to spend the time, you can grow hundreds of plants for much less than you’d pay for the same at a nursery.
If you’re still interested in starting seedlings indoors, these are the steps involved:
- Get some seed catalogs and peruse the many options. Buy some seeds.
- Buy a seedling mat. Small mats, capable of holding two standard-size flats of plants can be purchased on-line for $50.
- Buy some plastic seed-starter flats and some packaged seed starter mix (obtainable at most local stores that carry garden supplies). Die-hards will want to use soil blocks and make their own starter mix, and this is certainly more sustainable, but don’t let inexperience keep you from learning this practical skill. Once you gain the experience of growing plants from seeds, you can always invest in better (and more sustainable) equipment and supplies.
- Decide what plants you wish to start. Warm season plants are the most common to start from seed, and include tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. These should be started 6-8 weeks before your last day of frost in the spring. Serious seeders may wish to start onion seeds indoors as well. These might profitably be started 8-10 weeks before the last day of frost.
- Follow the directions on the seed-starter packages. The seedling mix goes into the plastic trays. Put in the seeds at the correct depth as indicated on the seed packets, water, cover with the see-through plastic dome and put on the warmed seedling mat. In about a week to 10 days (for most seeds), you’ll see little plants begin to emerge from the seedling mix.
- Lighting is important, as the plants will need light. Inexpensive, fluorescent shop lights will do the trick. They cost only about $20 and will provide two tubes of light for your plants. Don’t bother with the special ‘grow bulb’ tubes; regular cool white or sun spectrum bulbs will work just fine and are cheaper.
- Keep your little seedlings moist, but not wet, as otherwise you might get ‘damping-off’ and your seedlings will die.
- When the seedlings get their second set of leaves, you can transplant them into bigger pots to allow them to continue their root growth.
- A seedling mat is a must have if your starter space is normally very cool. Photo by Karl Schmidt.If you have space indoors near a sunny window, you can move your new plants there to start getting natural light.
- Before the plants are ready to plant outside, they’ll need to adjust to being in full UV light and adjust to outside conditions. This should be done gradually, through a process called ‘hardening off’. The pots or plant flats should be left outside in partial shade in a safe location (avoid windy spots) for a few hours a day, to allow them to adjust to their new condition. This process might take 10 days or longer, but will ensure that the plants will survive and thrive once you plant them in their respective locations in your garden.
- Once the plants are in the ground, tend them as you would normally.
It might seem like a lot of work, but starting your own plants from seed will be rewarding. And when you slice into that first heirloom tomato of the season and it’s a variety you’ve never seen in the local nurseries, you’ll enjoy it all the more!
Karl Schmidt is an experienced permaculture teacher and designer and founder of Glacial Lakes Permaculture, a business and demonstration site dedicated to permaculture education, design, research, and consulting. In addition to Glacial Lakes Permaculture, Karl is also a contributor to Sustainable Dakota Digest, where you may find additional similar articles.