Starting Vegetables from Seed

April 11, 2012

With the recent sunny weather in Seattle, the feeling that summer is not far off is palpable. Everywhere I look I see people smiling, biking, taking walks, or working outside. It’s the time of year where we all start making grand schemes for the summer: vacations, hiking trips, fitness goals, and of course, the vegetable garden.

Vegetable Seedlings

For those itching to get started and interested in saving some cash, now is the time to sow seeds indoors. I’ve already planted a few hardy crops directly in the ground: peas, beets, carrots, chard, and kale. However, despite the recent, mild weather, the risk of frost is still present. Many plants still have a couple months to wait before they go in the ground and a few really need to be sown indoors ahead of time. Tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, for example, need a little babying and must be started inside in a seedling mix (not potting soil or compost). Truly tiny seeds, like oregano, almost invariably fail to germinate and simply rot if planted in soil that is too heavy and water retentive. You also get a lot more for your money with herbs if you start them from seed rather than buying one or two starts.

You don’t need much to get started — a sunny window, seedling mix, seeds, and some kind of tray or container. Since I live in an old house I always seem to find old plastic trays from previously purchased starts in the basement, but you can pick these up at your local nursery or just use egg cartons. When I purchase seeds, I like to split them with friends and neighbors to save on cost and allow a greater diversity of plants to grow. Most seed packets have way more seeds then the average backyard gardener can use in a single season. Fortunately, most seeds are viable for at least 2 years, so your new stock of seeds is also an investment for next year’s crops.

Welcome to my Seedling Space Station!

This year my seedling set up is the most elaborate of my gardening history. I’m calling it the “seedling space station.” Since I’m hoping for tomato and pepper starts, I got a fluorescent light to make sure they get enough light. After searching for a place to hang it in the basement, I found the perfect spot in the garage. Then I grabbed an unused patio table, covered it with a tarp, and draped two emergency blankets around it to insulate the seeds and reflect back the maximum amount of light. While I was poking around down there I also found a shop heater, basically a small space heater, which can sit on the table and is perfect for keeping the seedlings warm at night. (The blessing and curse of living in an old house is there is always random useful stuff lying around. It’s just a matter of finding it!)

When I was all done, I stepped back to admire my handiwork and realized that it looks like I’m growing a very different kind of herb (if you know what I mean). Oh, well. If the cops storm in, at least it will be pretty hilarious to see their faces when they realize they are busting me for a tiny crop of tomatoes and crookneck squash.

Speaking of squash, this year I’m also planting all my squash varieties indoors to give them a head start. While zucchini, pumpkins, and other squash often do fine when planted in the ground, starting them inside means they will likely get bigger and produce sooner. I’m doing the same thing with my Japanese cucumbers and bean varieties. Beans are generally very easy to sow outdoors, but not all of the seeds germinate so it’s nice to avoiding crowding in one area while another spot is too thin. Bean seeds are also a favorite with the birds, so you can save yourself some netting and re-planting by germinating them indoors.

Planting seeds indoors is pretty simple. I prepped my seedling soil by mixing it with water in a 5-gallon bucket and stirring it thoroughly to make sure it is evenly moist, but not overly wet. (If possible, leave it overnight to fully absorb.) Then I scooped the soil mix into containers and planted seeds at the soil depth recommended on the seed packet. For squash and cucumbers I usually only plant 3-5 seeds, hoping to get 1 or 2 plants. For herbs, I usually do about half the packet, but a full packet for basil since I like to grow a lot of it!

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