Learn seed starting to grow more plants for your garden for a lot less money. In this step-by-step seed starting guide you will find the key pieces of equipment and exact steps to start seeds for your garden with ease.
Over the years as my garden has grown I have started to grow more and more of my own seeds. For me this makes the most sense from a cost effective stand point as paying $3-$5 a plant when you have a large garden can add up very quickly.
Get A Head Start On The Season
I grow in zone 3 which means I have a very short growing season and a large portion of the food I want to grow cannot be started from a seed right in the ground as my ground is still covered in snow (and will be for a couple more months) when many need to be started. This leaves me with two choices to either buy or start my own seeds if I want a good variety of produce.
Access A Wider Variety Of Plants
Another awesome benefit to starting your own seeds is the huge varieties that are available compared to what you find in a greenhouse. This poses several benefits, my favourite being that I get to choose varieties that are more ideally suited to my very short growing season and as I mentioned above having a bunch of varieties means you don’t get sick of any one thing. You also increase your chances of a good harvest even if one variety fails.
So I have gathered up the key tips & troubleshooting items for those of you are looking to get into starting more of your own seeds with greater success, or perhaps just get started altogether.
Before you begin we should talk about a few key items you will need to get started.
1. Do you buy seed starting mix or potting soil? Or should you just make your own?
Let’s start with the difference between the two…
SEED STARTING MIX HAS:
- Very low in nutrients. Forces roots to search for nutrients creating a better root structure.
- Sterilized – Keeps away diseases and weeds (there was one time I tried to start seeds by digging dirt out of my garden. I had all these cute little plants sprout. Turns out a bunch of them were weeds. Only did that once lol)
- Very Fine Particles – makes it easy for the delicate roots to spread out while giving good support for the plant.
- Retains moisture better (both for seed starting and so your little seedling don’t croak from running out water too quick)
POTTING SOIL HAS:
- Nutrient dense (compost, worm castings etc)
- Slow release nutrients
- Larger particles like tree bark
- Lower perlite / vermiculite to soil ratio
I have tried out a lot of combinations over the years and I think I have finally settled on my favourite. This is a personal choice and I do recommend testing it out if your keen.
I switched away from using seed starting mix due to the lack of nutrients. I need to keep plants in pots for quite awhile due to my late last frost date. I have found that using worm castings mixed with regular potting soil mix has give me the best results. Plants have more food so they grow bigger and generally look a lot healthier even when they have been in pots for months. Often this is without my supplementing very much additional fertilizer. I am a big fan of less things to worry about so this is huge win in my books.
The one thing I did feel like I was missing was the moisture retention of seeds starting so now add a small top layer of coconut coir to my pots. This helps keep even moisture for long which boosts success with even the fussiest seeds.
2. What kind of a container should you start your seedlings in?
Start with a small shallow container to avoid excess water until the root system has grown. This could mean reusing old seedling trays from plants you have purchased. You could put a wanted ad online for anyone giving them away. Mini-peat pots or toilet paper rolls also work great.
Get creative with what you start your seedlings in. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Could be just some recycling or other containers you have around. I like to use the plastic lettuce / spinach containers you get from the grocery store.
If you are starting something 8-10 weeks before planting outside then you will likely need to repot into a bigger pot. You will know to do this when you see a good root ball possibly even sticking right out the bottom of your little pot, you will also notice it goes through water quite quickly so an upgrade is in order.
*IF YOU ARE REUSING OLD POTS BE SURE TO STERILIZE YOUR POTS FIRST. USE 1/10 BLEACH TO WATER RATIO AND SOAK FOR 10 MIN AND THEN RINSE WITH WARM SOAPY WATER.*
3. Purchasing Your Seeds
This is my favourite part. Now before you head out to the store and start buying everything in sight (those seed packets are hard to resist when you get there) make yourself a list of what you need. It’s also helpful to decide what varieties might be best for your growing space.
Things to consider:
- If you are growing in containers look for dwarf (zucchini, summer squash etc), bush (beans) or determinate (tomato) varieties. These have been bred specifically to stay small and stop growing at a certain size to then start flowering and fruiting.
- If you have ample space then looking for indeterminate varieties (tomato), pole (beans) or a standard variety. These can either be let run over the ground or trained to grow up support).
- Looking for disease and pest resistant varieties can be helpful.
- Short season varieties if you know you don’t have a very long growing season like myself.
- Cool season, drought tolerant or anything specific to your growing space that would benefit you.
- I prefer to purchase organic wherever I can. There isn’t always the options and an organic seed vs not isn’t going to produce anything different for plant for toxin load. You are however supporting organic growers which I feel is every important. Something to consider!
Going to a reputable greenhouse and asking for their advice on varieties is also a great way to get started. This has been a fun way for me to try out different varieties with confidence.
4. Time to plant your seeds.
Once you have your supplies it’s time to get started. You will want to pre-moisten your soil. You want to be able to squeeze it and a water droplet is just about to come out (so likely wetter than you think).
TIP: SOAK PEAS, BEANS, CORN, PUMPKIN, SQUASH, CHARD, BEATS, NASTURTIUM, SUNFLOWER, LUPINE AND SWEET PEA (THINK LARGE SEEDS & ONES WITH A HARD COATING). PUT THEM IN A BOWL OR GLASS OF WATER BEFORE BED AND PLANT FIRST THING IN THE MORNING.
- Pre-moisten soil as noted just above
- Pack the soil pretty gently into your container. Too compact and the delicate roots can’t spread out.
- Place the seeds either one per pot or a couple if you want to thin or just make sure that everything starts and then separate the extras.
- Cover with the recommended amount of soil (on the seed pack), and no more than that! Pat gently to tuck them in.
- Cover with a lid or something to keep moisture in. Be sure it can still breath a little bit.
- Place in a warm location to germinate. This could be on a seed starting mat or a window sill to get the heat of the sun. Most seeds germinate with heat not light. This is key to remember.
It is a good idea to keep a journal with what you started and when. You can note the germination time that the seed packet recommends. This will help you to know when to expect them and monitor how they are doing.
*My garden journal is one of my favourites to look back on. All the little pieces of information that I have needed to know over the years have gone into it, my notes on successes and failures. Each piece giving me more to grow on for the next year. (pun intended hehe)
5. Uncover as soon as they poke through the dirt.
Remove the cover you had on to keep moisture in and place them under grow lights or in a sunny spot. At this point once germination happens you want to keep your seedlings cool to avoid too much moisture evaporation and them drying out.
6. Use A Fan To Built Strength & Reduce Chance Of Disease
I use a couple small clip on fans that blow on my seeds for most of the day. Start on a lower setting for a few hours and work up. This will keep the plants from overheating (and getting cooked to death) but also to reduce the chances of disease like damping off that are prone in seedling. Good air flow helps a lot. Lastly the fan will give the plant a strong stem and prepare it for the outside world.
7. If you decided you need to fertilize your seedlings… proceed with caution.
*If it is within a couple weeks of putting in the ground I don’t usually fertilize. It’s the ones that will be in seeding starting mix for a few months that will require this.
One they have sprouted and start to grow their first true leaves (not just the 2 little ones that popped from the seed) you can start to consider fertilizing them, unless they are going into the ground fairly soon.
As I mentioned above in the soil portion I have found that I don’t need anything extra for quite some time with using worm castings in the soil mixture.
As the seedlings are quite delicate you do need to be VERY careful with liquid fertilizers. Too much will kill them very quickly whereas worm castings are slow release. The plant takes what it needs when it needs it.
Harden Off Your Plants Starter Plants!
After all your hard work seed starting, tending to the starter plants indoors it would be a shame to kill them by transplanting them straight outdoors before they are ready. To learn how to harden off starter plants to prepare them for success outdoors and prevent transplant shock head over to my detailed blog post here: Don’t Kill Your Starter Plants: Learn How To Harden Off Plants Correctly.
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