With a plan, some simple supplies, and the right care, you can get a head start on your spring garden by growing seedlings indoors.
Heirloom enthusiasts interested in rare varieties will love the benefits of starting seeds early.
Every gardener has particular moments that are his or her absolute favorites of a growing season — moments like receiving a much-anticipated seed order in the mail, harvesting the first of the spinach in spring, cutting into a ripe melon, or talking with fellow gardeners about successes and failures.
Me? I love the moment when my tomato seeds turn into strong seedlings, and I can brush my hand across the tops of the plants growing indoors and smell that glorious fresh tomato smell. It feels like a wonderful form of cheating getting to breathe in that lovely smell long before the heat of summer.
Seed-starting is an enjoyable process that affords many benefits to the home gardener. Here are 10 reasons to start your own garden seeds and 10 tips to help you achieve seed-starting success.
Why start your own seeds?
Endless Varieties. OK, maybe not endless. But your variety options will exponentially increase when you decide to start seeds at home. When shopping for starts at a garden center (or, more limiting yet, the garden section of a big-box store), you’ll typically find the same boring varieties over and over again: Big Boy tomatoes, Early Girl tomatoes, California Wonder peppers, maybe some hybrid broccoli. But in home seed-starting, the sky’s the limit. You can try all kinds of unique varieties, and match your seed starting to your gardening goals, such as wanting compact plants, out-of-this-world flavor, high yields, or disease resistance.
More Heirlooms. This goes hand-in-hand with No. 1, but it’s worth noting: Heirloom enthusiasts interested in trying all kinds of cool, rare varieties will love the advantages of having an efficient seed-starting setup at home.
Save Money. Purchased transplants aren’t cheap. One packet of seeds generally costs less than a single start at a garden center. To take that a step further, if you save your own seeds from open-pollinated varieties you start yourself, the next generation of seeds will be free to you. It’s true that to start seeds you’ll need to spend a bit of money upfront on supplies such as seed-starting mix and grow lights. But in the long run, you’ll save big bucks by not having to purchase your transplants.
Achieve Greater Success with Regionally Adapted Seed. Not every variety of every crop will thrive in every region. When you start your own seeds, you can choose varieties that are regionally adapted to your area, leading to healthier plants and better yields.
Give Crops a Head Start. You can start certain crops such as lettuces indoors, set out the seedlings as winter comes to a close, and then harvest heads weeks before you would have been able to if you’d direct-sown seeds in spring. (Bring a row cover into the mix, and you’ll be even further ahead of the game.) In many regions, the only way to grow certain slow-maturing crops is to give them a head start via indoor seed starting.
More Control Over Sustainability. The more self-sufficient you are in the realm of growing food, the more control you have over the sustainability of all activities involved. When it comes to seed starting, you can make a difference in several small but meaningful ways.
Consume fewer resources by reusing and recycling materials for seed pots. Use seed-starting mixes that don’t contain peat, which — even though it’s ubiquitous in the gardening world — is being harvested from bogs at an alarmingly unsustainable rate. Coconut coir made from coconut husks is a better option that retains moisture just as well. Finally, support seed companies using sustainable practices.
Nudges You to Plan Ahead. We all know that moment when life’s busyness gets away from us and we think, “Yikes — I need to start spring planting soon!” We’re thinking of compost, bed prep, seed ordering we should have done weeks ago, and on and on. If you get in the habit of starting seeds at home, you’re forced (in a good way) to think ahead, decide what you want to plant and what you’re going to start indoors, and order the seeds you need.
Goes Hand-in-Hand with Seed-Saving. If you save your own seeds — a worthy, wonderful pursuit for the self-reliant gardener — it makes sense that you would want to grow your own transplants. And, vice versa, if you’ve made the initial investment in a nice seed-starting setup, it’s that much easier and more inviting to dive into the science of seed saving.
Save Space in Your Garden. If you’re really tight on growing space, starting some crops indoors can help you take strategic advantage of every square foot of soil. For instance, let’s say you have a nice big patch of spinach you’re still harvesting from at the same time that you’re thinking of planting a couple of hills of cucumbers. Instead of choosing one or the other, start your cucumber seeds indoors. Keep harvesting from your spinach during the weeks when your cukes are growing into strong little plants indoors, and then, about the time your spinach will be thinking about going to seed anyway, you can hoe under that crop and pop in your cuke seedlings on the same day. (Choose a vining variety of cucumber and give it something to climb up to save even more space.)
Have Way More Fun at Seed Swaps. If you’ve ever been to a seed swap — or even just flipped through a lovely seed catalog — you’ve probably seen all kinds of intriguing, beautiful seeds for crops that don’t direct-sow well. Get the hang of seed starting, and you’ll never be held back again! I’m being a bit silly here, but it is truly nice to be able to swap or try seeds of all types.
10 Seed-Starting Tips
Create a Plan. One of my favorite aspects of growing my own seedlings is the wintertime planning. Just when I’m longing for days outside in the dirt, I can sketch out what I want to plant during the next growing season, read about new varieties I want to try, and create a calendar of when to start my seeds. Tomatoes, peppers (hot, bell and sweet), eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, basil, parsley, and onions are all perfect candidates for seed starting. These crops tend to do much better if planted as transplants and don’t direct-sow as easily.
If you have plenty of space in your seed-starting setup and/or if you have limited space in your garden, you can start lettuce, cucumbers, melons and squash, too. You’ll need to decide ahead of time what crops you’re going to start indoors and how many of each plant you want to grow (and have room for). Make a list, order seeds early, and map out a simple planting calendar.
Make Your Own Mix. Seed-starting mix needs to be a light-medium that holds moisture well. There are a lot of seed-starting mixes available at garden centers, but you can save even more money by creating your own at home (plus, mixing your own allows you to ditch peat and use coir instead). If you’d like to make your own mix, try this well-balanced, coir-based recipe:
• 18 quarts vermiculite
• 12 quarts coir
• 12 quarts mature,
• disease-free compost
• 3/4 cup blood meal
• 1/2 cup limestone
• 1-2/3 cups greensand
(Note: Coir comes in dehydrated bricks from garden centers and pet stores; the measurement here refers to the moistened, expanded material.)
Use Top-Quality, Regional Seed. To ensure the strongest, healthiest plants that will grow best in your micro-climate, choose high-quality, local seed. Purchase from local seed companies whose growing methods and business practices you trust. Look for those that do their own variety trials. Also, attend and get seed at local seed swaps, talking to growers about their varieties and seed selection practices.
Don’t Be Picky About Pots. While the grid-like seed-starting trays you’ve probably seen in stores work well, you can use all kinds of small containers to start your seeds: empty yogurt containers with a few holes punched in the bottom, seed-starting cups made out of old newspaper (plant the whole thing and the paper decomposes), and small pots you’ve saved from purchased flowers and plants. Also try making pots from eggshells, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, or even a seed blocker, a neat contraption that allows you to stamp out a block of soil that acts as a “pot.”
Do start in individual containers (or individual seed blocks) rather than planting multiple seeds in, say, a large, shallow tub; this will ensure that you don’t disturb plants’ root systems when it’s time to transplant them. In addition to individual containers, you’ll need a shallow tray in which to place your containers and hold water. You can use darn near anything for a tray — I’ve borrowed baking dishes from the kitchen for this purpose.
Get Your Timing Right. This tip, of course, harkens back to No. 1: If you sketch out what you want to grow ahead of time, you can create a quick calendar of when you actually need to start each type of seed. In general, start tomato seeds six to eight weeks before your average last frost date, start peppers eight to 10 weeks before this date, and start most brassicas such as broccoli four to six weeks before your last frost. Start a second round of brassicas for your fall garden about 12 to 14 weeks before your first fall frost. Check seed packets for specific varieties and for other crops to see recommended times for planting seeds indoors.
Plant Two, & Use a Pencil. I always plant two seeds per container and then thin the seedlings later. If I’ve made a careful plan and I’m giving the real estate in my seed-starting setup to grow, say, 10 broccoli plants, I want to be sure I actually end up with that many. So planting two seeds is insurance. When you thin seedlings, never pull the seedling completely out of soil mix. Instead, just use scissors and cut the weaker of the two seedlings at the soil surface so you don’t disturb the delicate root system of the seedling you are keeping.
When you plant your seeds, use a pencil to do so. Dump out some seeds onto a flat, dry surface, and then dip the tip of a pencil in water and touch the pencil tip to a seed. The seed will stick to the pencil, and then you can easily poke the seed into your pot of mix. Trust me — it’s like magic, and is so much easier than using your fingers for planting, especially if you’re dealing with tiny seeds.
Water Well. Be sure to keep your seed-starting mix moist as your seeds germinate and as your seedlings grow. Don’t water tiny seedlings with a watering can, as the force of the water coming out of the spout can damage the delicate plants. Instead, water by spraying seedlings well with a spray bottle or, better yet, by adding water to the bottom trays holding individual containers.
Lots of Light. You have three options when it comes to lighting up the lives of your growing plants: natural sunlight, fluorescent light bulbs and specialized “grow lights.” There are pros and cons to each. Sunlight is, of course, cheapest and least energy-intensive — but you need really strong light in a south-facing window to make it feasible. If your seedlings don’t get enough light, they’ll quickly become “leggy” (spindly and weak) as they put all their energy into reaching more light.
If you use fluorescent lights or grow lights, keep the tops of the growing plants no more than an inch away from the lights. I start my trays out propped up on several books, and then slowly take the books away to lower the trays as the plants get taller. Keep your lights on the seedlings for 14 to 18 hours daily; an inexpensive timer hooked up to your lights can help you ensure this range.
Cozy and Warm. To ensure good germination and strong plants, keeping your seeds and seedlings at a consistent, warm temperature. They shouldn’t get too cold, but they also shouldn’t get too warm — about 70 to 80 degrees is a good range. Some gardeners use an electric heat mat underneath each seed-starting tray, but I don’t think mats are worth the extra expense if there’s another easy way to keep the seedlings warm. Try placing your seed-starting setup next to a heat source, like a heater vent or radiator — and if you do start seeds in a sunny window, always place a curtain or blanket between the seedlings and the window during nighttime.
Always Harden Off. At least a week before you transplant your starts, start getting them used to their new home: the great outdoors. It’s essential to put young plants through this hardening-off period. Set plants out for a couple of hours the first day, in a protected location where they won’t experience rain or strong winds. Build up from there, letting your plants stay outside for a longer period of time each day. At first, limit the amount of time the seedlings spend in the direct sun because they can get sunburned. After they adjust to their new environment, they’ll be ready to live in the garden and provide you with delicious, healthy food.
Why Keep A Gardening Journal?
A garden journal can add to your gardening success and enhance your enjoyment of your gardening activities. Depending on how much effort you want to spend on the journal, it can record as little as what you planted and when. At the other extreme, it can record every minute activity you perform in your gardens, such as trimming, fertilizing, watering, and recording rainfall, temperature, and hours of sunlight. It’s up to you, how much information, or how little, you keep. It also depends on what you expect to do with the information later. I had some correspondence with one gardener who pooh-poohed the need for any kind of journal. This gardener wrote notes on activities and kept them in a big plastic bag for retrieval, should the need arise. Fortunately, there’s lots of room in gardening from every point of view. It depends on what you want.
There are several general types of garden journals, and you should consider which one will likely meet your needs the best.
This broad category includes everything from nuts to bolts, kept in a shoebox, bag, storage box, or any other format where retrieval is on a ‘dive-in’ basis. This type of journal works best for people who want to save ‘stuff’, just in case, but have no idea what they’ll do with it.
This type of garden journal includes current gardening information and planning tools such as garden layouts, visual references such as pictures, and detailed information about bloom time, requirements, color, and design issues as well as gardening activities and observations.
The garden organizer journal is grouped by plant type or location, by color or season, or in another way that makes sense to you. Contents are organized in the chosen order, rather than recorded sequentially in date order.
The best example of this a personal diary. For each day that you choose to make an entry, you start a new line right after your last entry. You make entries daily, weekly, or as you get to them. Usually, pictures and additional information are not included.
For avid photographers or gardeners who want to look at their garden even in the winter, this form of garden journal lets you store garden pictures, plant details, and activities. A popular use of this style of the journal is to take digital photos of your plants through each stage of their growth, inserting new pages as required. This can provide you with a visual image of what your perennials look like when they emerge from the spring soil, vs. what weeds look like so that you remove the weeds only.
The record keeper format permits the most detail to be kept on each and every plant in your garden. It will likely include complete plant details, all activities, and permit as much detail as you want to enter. This style need not be in a binder but could be index cards in a shoebox, in alphabetical order, for example. It could also utilize an address card filing system.
Diary Style Garden Journal
The diary style follows the format of a regular bound diary. The pages are usually unformatted so that you can write as much, or as little as you wish for each day, or skip days without skipping pages. Your notes are written in chronological order. While you can tape seed packets and pictures into this style journal, they will eventually over-fill the book and make it unattractive. This style is best if you want to simply record your activities and observations.
Formatted, Bound Style Garden Journal
This style garden journal may be formatted with a space allowed for each day, with specific contents related to gardening, or in other ways. It is bound so that you cannot insert pages afterwards. Notes are in chronological order. Again, an addition of enough seed packets and pictures will make the book very bulky.
Loose-leaf Style Garden Journal
This format of garden journal utilizes lined or unlined loose-leaf paper as its base. Its main advantage is that you can insert pages at a later time. Why would this matter? Well, if you want to keep all entries regarding a specific plant together, as some gardeners do, you will need to either insert pages as required or leave a lot of room after the initial entry, which looks really silly until it fills up. This is also a nice cheap method to create a do-it-yourself garden journal. See our instructions for a sample homemade garden journal. You can also use your word processing software to create and maintain your garden journal. Use of backgrounds like gardenjournal.gif will let you customize the appearance of your journal.
Web-based Style Garden Journal
There are numerous services for creating and maintaining a garden journal on the internet. With these services, your journal is readily available online to you at any time, and many services are free. A selection of templates is usually provided by the service, for you to customize your entries to suit your taste and needs, and you can choose to share your journal with others or keep it private. The advantages of this type of journal include your participation in an online community, and the ease of use, once you get used to them. The disadvantages include the need to be on the internet to make your garden entries or refer to past entries. Most services do allow printing of your journal.
Computer Program Garden Journal
This style of a journal is useful for the gardener who wants to look at gardening activities in a variety of different ways. For example, to see all activities for a specific plant, or all activities of a specific nature (eg fertilizing), as well as activities by date. Most computer garden journals also include a section for detailed plant records, as well. You will usually be able to print all plant records and journal entries in a variety of different sort orders, depending on how you will use your journal. You can also add entries out of date order. The Garden Management System gardening software includes a garden journal. With this program, you can view journal entries for with each plant, in date order, and in a variety of other sort orders. You can also print a page for each plant that includes plant characteristics and details, as well as all journal entries for that plant, as shown in the sample plant report.
What to Record
You can record as much, or as little as you want, in your garden journal. Just make sure it’s a fun activity, rather than a chore. Some suggestions for the kinds of information you may want to include are:
- planting dates for seeds and plants
- transplanting dates
- source and cost of plants and seeds
- any guarantees and location of bills (if needed)
- weather particulars such as rainfall, frost dates, and results
- plant characteristics, date of germination, a date they emerge in spring, the appearance of blooms
- date of harvest (for vegetables) or cut flowers taken
- date and type of fertilizer or other chemicals applied, and to which plants
Garden Journal Sections
You may find it helpful to divide your garden journal into sections. As with all the other choices you’ll make regarding your journal, your choice of sections depends on how much information you plan to keep. Think about the gardening information you currently keep, and why you might consider a change. Then consider how to achieve this. Here are some possibilities to choose from.
- seed packets – included with plant detail record or in a separate section
- pictures – throughout the season or at peak bloom, included with plant detail or in a separate section
- reference materials – articles, magazines, book list, and comments, any course materials
- garden plan – to scale on graph paper, or drawn free-hand, laying out beds and plantings
- daily activities
- wish list – plants to consider for the future, possible architectural considerations like a pergola, hut, water feature or dry river bed
- dried blooms
- inspiration thoughts
- websites you like and why
- recipes for your garden harvest
- supplier notes – who you like and who you don’t
- costs – keeping all your gardening costs together can be an eye-opener at the end of the year, which can be a good thing or a very, very bad thing, depending on your viewpoint
Instructions for a Homemade Garden Journal
What You’ll Need
You can include or exclude, any of the materials listed. We’ve included the purpose of each material so you can decide if you need it or not.
- material for front and back covers. We suggest construction paper or something heavier. If you’ve got it, a water-resistant material would be nice.
- graph paper for your overall garden plan and individual garden bed plans
- full-page vinyl pocket pages, 3-hole punched, for articles
- vinyl pocket pages with up to 4 pockets, for multiple pictures, 3-hole punched
- photo album pages – 3-hole punched
- 3-hole punched lined paper for notes
- tabbed dividers – monthly if you plan to keep your journal in date order, or blank for you to design your own dividers
- something to keep your pen and pencil in, while you’re in the garden
- a means for holding your garden journal pages together, which might be a binder, ribbon, raffia or anything else that appeals to you.
- different colors of paper for different seasons, or for different purposes, as you wish, making it easier to find things if your journal will be a fatty
- journal paper – this can be plain white, lined, or designer stationery, formatted or unformatted – this is what you will use for your notes.
How to Get Started
If you have a large existing garden, it may seem overwhelming to begin keeping records, now. Where to start!
- Begin with a rough hand-drawn garden plan, laying out your garden beds. We suggest one plan for the front yard and a second for the backyard. Do a third plan if you have substantial side yards.
- Transfer the individual beds on your main plan to separate pieces of paper, and tackle each bed individually. It breaks up the task and lets you actually accomplish something.
- Map groupings of plants, rather than individual plants, and make it really rough. You can do more detailed, scaled versions later.
- If you plan to keep records of each plant or type of plant, you’ll want to create a separate page for each plant species in your garden, and record where they’re located as well as their descriptions, proper names, and as much information as you now know about them. Begin with a separate page for each, and fill them in later.
- Take pictures of plants. If you have a digital camera, it’s a lot less costly over time, and you can take pictures willy-nilly, then pull them out later. Otherwise, at least, take pictures when they’re in full bloom.
- Record your activities, including the creation of the journal.
As a general rule, it’s a lot easier to get started and keep motivated as you begin your journal if you split big tasks into a lot of manageable little tasks.
Garden Journal Templates
We’ve included a few samples of garden templates you may find useful. Most are very basic and can be created using MS Word or any other word processor. You can be as fancy or as simple as you want. Just click on the link and either views the template in Word or download the template for free.
- journal paper – this can be plain white, lined, or designer stationery, formatted or unformatted – this is what you will use for your notes.