If you're serious about gardening, the growing season never really comes to an end. Something always needs to be done, even in the dead of winter or early spring. On our homestead, once the holidays are over, it is time to turn our attention to the upcoming spring planting season, which actually starts several weeks in advance of spring. The first item on my agenda is to start my own transplants from seed.
When I was a new gardener, this task intimidated me. It seemed complicated and unnecessary, considering the fact I could just go out and buy them. But then I got more interested in heirloom varieties and organic practices, and found that starting my own plants gave more variety than anything I could find at the local nursery. Not to mention how I have complete control over using fertilizers and pest control — or not.
Do you want to start your own transplants? Here are my best tips.
You will need:
- Seeds of your choice. We recommend organic heirloom seeds from Peaceful Valley's Grow Organic or Seeds for Generations.
- Plastic containers with a clear lid of some sort, such as empty yogurt containers, solo cups, or even the Jiffy mini greenhouses. You can also reuse the black square planters from previously purchased transplants, but make sure they have been disinfected. Peat pots are also a popular choice because they can be set directly into the ground. Plastic, in my opinion, does a better job of conserving moisture and can be reused.
- Growing medium. This can be a standard potting mix, a seed starting mix, or Jiffy pellets.
- A light source. If you have grow lights, wonderful! If you don't, a south-facing window is fine.
Choose what you are going to grow.
Consider what you and your family like to eat, as well as what will grow best in your zone. For example, I love brussels sprouts but have yet to get them to grow successfully since we don't always have a cold enough spring for them. If you have questions about what will and won't work for your zone, contact your county extension office or a gardening friend for advice.
Additionally, choose crops that will transplant well or need a head start indoors. This includes lettuces, kale, Swiss chard, peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli. However, root vegetables and climbers such as beets, peas, and beans grow better sown directly in the garden. They don't like to be moved once they get started.
Plant your seeds.
Decide on a time frame during which you plant your seeds. If you start too soon, they will outgrow your plants and won't be as healthy. Alternatively, you don't want to start them too late and miss your window entirely. Again, if you have questions about the proper planting times, contact your local extension office for help and advice.
The planting process itself can be messy so select an area that is easy to clean and set aside a time when you can give the task your full attention. Fill your pots, cups, or pellet trays. Make sure your medium is damp, and then plant your seeds! A general rule of thumb for depth is typically 4x the size of the seed. Always plant 2 to 3 seeds to ensure germination and gently cover with the medium. If all three sprout, you can select the healthiest one and pinch back the rest.
Cover your containers loosely with some sort of transparent lid that will conserve moisture and allow light. I have even used plastic wrap with great success. The objective is to create a moist greenhouse effect.
Now make sure that each crop is labeled, and write down the date they were planted for future reference. While you can write directly on the container, I prefer to use the little garage sale stickers since they are easily removed for a quick clean-up.
Set the seedlings under your light source.
If you have grow lights, set them directly under the light and lower it so that it is almost touching the top of the pot. As soon as the sprouts emerge remove the plastic cover and raise the light periodically so that it is always about one inch above the top of your plant. Any leaves that touch the bulb will burn, so make sure to keep the light far enough away.
If you are using a window as your light source, set the pots in a windowsill or on a TV tray as close to the window as possible. While a south-facing window is the best situation, any window that gets the most light will work. Again, once the sprouts emerge, remove the plastic cover. Every so often, give the pots a turn to keep the seedlings from “leaning” towards the light source.
While grow lights are the ideal tool for growing your own transplants, don't be discouraged if you don't have them. I grew my own seedlings on a windowsill for several years before I finally received a set from my husband as an anniversary gift. In fact, I would not recommend purchasing any unless you decide this is something you really want to do. They are bulky, take up space, and don't blend into decor very well. 😉
Feed your plants.
The first set of leaves to emerge are called the cotyledon. These are a very tender, small pair that don't resemble the adult plant at all. The “true leaves” emerge from the center of the cotyledons, and while they will also be small, they will actually look like the adult plant. Once the true leaves emerge you can feed your plants. I prefer to use a very diluted mixture of organic fish emulsion fertilizer similar to what I use in my garden, and I only use it once or twice before setting them out into the garden. Over-feeding a plant can cause as many problems as underfeeding.
Harden off your seedlings.
Once your plants grow to be within 2 to 6 inches high, it's time to condition them to outside life. Start on a cloudy day with little wind and set them in a protected place for a short amount of time. Over the course of a few weeks, increase exposure to the elements (sunlight and wind) for longer and longer periods of time until your plant can withstand full sun (or whatever exposure is required to thrive) without showing signs of stress such as wilting and flagging. You can read here for further tips on hardening off your plants.
After your seedlings have hardened off sufficiently, plant them in your garden. Dig a small hole slightly wider but no deeper than the pot, gently work the seedling out of the pot, place it in the hole, and pack the soil around it. Fertilize with the solution of your choice to give them a head start.
Check on your seeds every day to monitor for moisture, signs of stress, damping off, or pests. The soil should be kept moist, but not wet. Overly wet soil causes a condition called damping off — where the base of the stem rots and causes the seedling to topple over. Once this happens, you can't do anything to save your seedling(s).
Keep pests to a minimum by using yellow sticky traps. Pest sprays, even organic ones, are not advisable for young plants at this stage.
Use a small fan to gently blow on the plants and help develop strong stems.
Grow one crop at a time. Don't try growing all of your garden transplants at once.
Some crops such as tomatoes and peppers will need heat in order to germinate. You can use a heat mat specifically for germinating seeds. I have success by simply setting the pots on top of my hot water heater. Once they germinate, they can be moved underneath the light source.
Do you grow your own transplants? What's been most successful or what works best for you?
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