Tips for starting plants from seed

Once your seeds are planted, don't forget to label the pots! (Photo Credit: EvelynGiggles via Flickr)

Once your seeds are planted, don’t forget to label the pots! (Photo Credit: EvelynGiggles via Flickr)

Spring is finally here and like most of us, you probably can’t wait to get out in the garden. Whether you prefer to grow flowers, vegetables or herbs, there is something so satisfying about starting garden plants from seed. A few inexpensive packages of seeds result in a bounty that lasts all season long.

It may seem a bit intimidating to grow plants from seed if you’ve never done it before, but just remember there are only five essentials for success: the right soil, water, light, containers and, of course, the seeds themselves.

If you are just starting out, it is a good idea to stick to easy-to-grow annuals and veggies rather than trying to grow perennials, as many of these seeds need specific pre-treatments before they will germinate.

Tender vegetable plants such as eggplants, tomatoes, onions, broccoli and cauliflower will have to be started indoors as they require a longer growing season than we have available in our northern climate.

Peas, beans, sweet corn and root veggies such as carrots and beets can be direct seeded outdoors as soon as the soil is warm enough. Annual flowers that are good bets for direct seeding outside include: cosmos, zinnias, morning glory, poppies, and marigolds. These five packages of seeds will provide gorgeous bouquets all summer long.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell, but before you rush out and load up on seed packages take the time to do a little research, as the location of your garden and the type of soil you have will determine what plants you’ll actually be able to grow. Some plants require open sunny areas, while others need sheltered and shady sites to thrive.

Also take the time to test and then amend your soil with organic matter such as peat moss, manure and compost, as these provide nutrients for your plants and aid in water retention and soil permeability. If your area has poor drainage or low-quality soil you may want to construct raised beds. Your plants will do best in an area where the soil has been thoroughly prepared prior to planting.

If you start your plants indoors, always use clean sterilized containers and a soilless mix specifically designed for seeds. Check seed packets to find out how deep to plant each seed. A general rule of thumb is to plant the seed to a depth of about double the diameter of the seed.

You will also need to provide a source of light. There are special light stands available, but you can do just as well with a shop light suspended over a work table – if possible, make it so that the light can be raised as your plants grow. Remember to keep the growing medium moist, but not wet; using a spray bottle helps to avoid washing out tiny seeds before they have a chance to sprout.

Once you have planted your seeds, you may have to cover them with a piece of cardboard if they need darkness to germinate. Check the instructions on your seed packet for more information.

When the seedlings have germinated, thin them to select the strongest plant per container. Many of us find it hard to do this but your plants will thank you. Seedlings growing too close together will compete for light, water and nutrients and often they end up too leggy or succumb to disease due to poor air circulation.

Once the danger of frost has passed (in our region that’s usually around the end of May), it’s time to plant outdoors in the garden. Remember to harden off your seedlings first. Give them a few hours outdoors in a shady site at first, and then leave them out for longer periods, gradually exposing them to the sun and natural elements.

So there you have it: the next time you see seed packages for sale in the store, take a few minutes to look them over and in no time, you’ll be growing your own plants from seeds. There is so much joy in admiring the first flower or eating the first tomato from a plant that was grown by hand from a tiny seed.

Above all, have fun!

Marsha Middleton is a landscape designer, garden consultant and horticulturist who lives in LaHave, Nova Scotia.

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