With these early warm temperatures, many people are starting to think about summer vegetable gardening. And it’s the perfect time to start your own seeds! I usually start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the second half of March and most other seedlings after that. But should you start your own seedlings? The answer isn’t necessarily yes.
Many great local farms and community organizations sell seedlings. Even if six packs are more expensive then seed packages, remember your money is going to a good cause. If you’ve been growing vegetables for a year or two (or more!) and are looking for a new challenge, go for it! It also is often worth the effort for folks with very large vegetable gardens or farms. But remember, strong seedlings are the key to success for a healthy summer vegetable garden. You’ll need the right equipment, enough time to care for the seedlings, and an attention for detail to raise strong seedlings.
The first key thing to find out is which plants should be grown into seedlings indoors or in a cold frame. Some seeds hate being transplanted and should simply be directly sowed into their final resting place – be it a container garden or in the ground. I always direct sow beans, carrots, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, dill, summer squash/zucchini, baby lettuce greens, beets, leeks, spinach, other greens, onion “sets”, peas, potatoes (pieces of potatoes, not seeds), radishes, and pumpkins/winter squash.
Head lettuce, kale, and chard will need to be transplanted. However, I’ve had good luck planting them in outdoor beds, rather than indoors in seedling trays. After they’ve grown their second set of leaves, I then spread them apart by transplanting them into their final summer resting place.
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower are best started indoors or in a greenhouse. If you want to grow these from seed, make sure the following pieces are in place!
- Be sure not to get in over your head. Start the number of plants you can care for. Try starting one or two of your favorite varieties of a veggie listed above if it’s your first year.
- You’ll need really strong natural light. If you don’t have a sunny southern window, consider buying a grow light (or put a full spectrum fluorescent bulb into a regular fixture). You can see my set-up from last year below – the grow light is propped up on containers from my pantry. I substitute in taller containers as the plants grow. You can see that the light is quite close to the seedlings – keeping light this low prevents seedlings from being leggy – one of the most common weaknesses of home-grown starts.
- Buy seed starting potting mix. There are organic soil mixes available at most garden stores. These mixes keep moisture even, contain the nutrients young plants need, and don’t compact like outdoor soil will.
- You also will need warm temperatures for certain seeds to germinate (65-75 degrees). Sunny windows can be warmer than the rest of your house. Anything with a motor, like a refrigerator, can also provide extra warmth to specific places in your house. If you don’t have any particularly warm places, you may need to buy a heat pad to get tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and basil to germinate. I bought one from Johnny’s that worked well for my eggplants.
- Timing: You want to start seeds so that they are the right size when it is warm enough to plant them outdoors. UMass Extension has good guidelines (and many other resources for Massachusetts gardeners), or you can search for other charts online.
- Make durable labels. You need to know which plants are which. I suggest popsicle sticks with permanent marker. You can also cut strips out of recycled plastic containers and write with permanent marker on them.
- Pay attention! Even water is key for healthy seedlings. Lights should be kept close to the tallest leaves, but you don’t want these leaves to touch the bulb. Once you see plants developing their second set of leaves, you may need to transplant them into lager containers so they do not become root bound. Keeping a close eye on your spring babies will set you up for success.