Growing Vegetables From Seed For Beginners:
So you’re thinking about starting your first vegetable garden from seed this year. Congratulations! There’s only one problem: you have no clue where to start. That was me a month ago.
When I was growing up, my father used to cultivate about one and a half acres of vegetable garden every summer. In the dark days of winter each year, he’d start planning out what would go where, and exactly when he needed to start each vegetable from seed. He had his indoor greenhouse space set up in our basement, on wooden shelves he built himself, with light fixtures on timers to make sure his seedlings got just the right amount of light.
For our household today, starting a garden each year mostly involves purchasing plants each year at the garden store, sometime in May after my husband is done teaching for the school year. The few things we would plant from seeds, like carrots, my husband would plant with the girls in late May.
But this year, of course, everything is different.
Right now, my husband – like teachers everywhere – is working overtime to transform his face-to-face courses into online format.
Because like much of the world, we’re living under stay-at-home orders due to the global coronavirus health crisis. Our favorite garden store is closed, because someone in our state’s government has deemed it a “nonessential business.” And even if it were open for business, social distancing means that leisurely browsing is out this year.
But we still need to eat. Given our family’s asthma, we’re trying to go to the grocery store as little as possible. Yet even when someone does go, the shelves aren’t always well stocked.
Seems like a good year to learn how to grow vegetables from seeds.
And I suspect I’m not the only one who’s learning how to grow vegetables from seeds for the very first time.
Fortunately, learning how to grow plants from seeds is a perfect homeschooling activity you can do with your kids. It’s a great way to get their hands dirty (literally!) as they learn tons of science – what plants need to grow, what conditions help them grow best, and where food comes from, for starters. Not to mention that the closer you can get your kiddos to the source of their food (in this case, fresh vegetables), the more likely they are to want to eat it.
The good news is, for most of us it’s not too late to start a garden at home from seeds. But since I had no clue what I was doing a month ago when I started learning how to start a garden, I’m writing this little guide to growing vegetables for beginners to help give you a head start on some of what I’ve figured out so far.
How To Start A Garden For Beginners
1. Figure out what plants you’d like to grow
As I now know, unless you live in climates where the ground stays well above freezing year-round, you’ll want to start certain vegetables from seed indoors. For us, the two biggies on this list are tomatoes and peppers – those things my husband used to buy as plants from the garden store. Close behind were the annual (needs-to-be-replanted-every-year) herbs the girls and I usually buy each spring for the girls’ tasting garden.
RELATED POST: Why Your Kids Will Love A Tasting Garden
Other vegetables need to be planted outdoors from seed, when the ground is warm enough. Our list of vegetables to plant outdoors from seed includes things like carrots, summer squash and zucchini, and green beans. (Some of what’s on this list may depend on where you live, and how long your growing season is.)
Some vegetables can be started indoors and transplanted, or planted as seeds outdoors. These include broccoli, spinach, and lettuces. You can also get fresh herbs sooner if you start them indoors, rather than waiting for the ground outside to warm up.
2. Figure out the last/first frost dates where you live
In order to know when to start your seeds, you need to know the average date of your area’s last frost in the spring, and first frost in the fall. This will help you know when to start vegetables from seeds indoors, when to plant seeds outdoors, and when to transplant your seedlings into your garden.
If you live in the United States or Canada, you can type your zip/postal code into the Old Farmer’s Almanac Last/First Frost Dates Calculator. (If you’re not familiar with it, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is an awesome general planning resource for gardeners of all abilities; you can often pick it up in the magazine area at your supermarket checkout.)
Why do you need to know frost dates? Because when to plant seeds outdoors, or when to transplant seedlings you started indoors into your garden, depends on the ground being warm enough outside so your seeds can sprout and your seedlings don’t die!
Once you know your frost dates, you can calculate an exact planting schedule for each vegetable you want to grow, including when to start your seeds indoors. Or you can use your frost dates plus the handy planting guidelines on the back of your seed packages as a guideline.
3. Know what you can realistically grow
Before you go crazy buying seeds and starting them indoors, you need to have a plan for where you’re going to grow your vegetables. Most of the vegetables you’ll want to plant will need soil that drains well and gets at least 6 hours of full sun during the day.
If you live on a shady lot in the middle of a forest, you may not have enough sunlight to grow a huge garden.
On the other hand, If you’re in a high-rise without any balcony space to grow your plants outdoors, you’re going to need to study up on hand pollination techniques.
If your backyard is the size of a postage stamp and your front yard is a slab of concrete, you’re not going to be able to grow enough produce to pay your kids’ college tuition from selling the excess.
If you live in the middle of a desert and you’re under drought water restrictions, you’ll need to be super-skilled at recycling your greywater if you want to have a successful garden, even a tiny one.
Keep these limitations in mind as you plan your garden.
4. Hunt down those seeds!
When everyone is trying to plant a pandemic garden, this may be easier said than done.
My mama and I both ordered seeds online in mid-March. Hers still haven’t arrived, and mine only arrived a few days ago – after I’d donned my gloves, face mask, and courage, and purchased backups locally from a nearby store.
Lesson learned: Buy seeds locally.
Like I said, the garden store we usually visit isn’t open right now. But here are some other places you may find seeds, depending on what’s open where you live:
- Hardware stores
- National home-improvement chains
- Discount department stores
- Other discount/dollar stores
- Your local supermarket
The advantage to buying seeds locally (besides not having to wait weeks before they show up!) is, chances are good that your local stores (even if part of a national chain) will sell things that are best-suited to grow in your area.
Last weekend – the weekend I’d intended to start planting – I finally found seeds in the produce section of our local supermarket. (Of course, the ones I’d ordered came a few days later. So I’m mailing the extras to my mama, who STILL hasn’t seen hers!)
5. Figure out your planting schedule
Your seed packages will have some guidance on this; most will tell you when to start seeds outside based on your last frost (see Step 2 above), or how many weeks before planting to start seeds indoors.
Another approach is to consult an online planting calendar based on where you live. For those in the U.S. and Canada, the Old Farmer’s Almanac has a tool that will generate a customized planting calendar based on your zip/postal code.
Hint: As I’d feared, given that I’m writing this in early April, the ideal time for me to start seeds indoors would have been over a month ago, before we were living under a global pandemic. When, of course, this wasn’t even on my radar screen.
But better late than never. And fortunately, there are a few things you can do to help speed your indoor seeds along.
6. Gear up for success
This is what you’ll need to successfully start vegetable seeds indoors, besides the seeds themselves:
Something to plant your seeds in.
You can use plant containers and potting soil, or get a small seed-starting tray with a clear cover plus some starter pellets. The pellets expand into little piles of clean planting mix when you water them, so all you have to do is put the seeds on top and gently push them in/cover them with something like a popsicle stick.
One advantage of getting a seed-starting tray with a clear cover is that the cover holds in both heat and humidity. For simplicity’s sake, I got a greenhouse tray with pellets, and was SO glad I did – super-simple and no mess!
Once you’ve started your seeds, if you have plants you’ll need to move to bigger containers indoors before they can go outside, start saving your milk jugs/juice cartons or similar containers. You can cut off the tops, poke drainage holes in the bottom, and use them as makeshift pots when the time comes.
Someplace to put them.
As in, some sort of shelf setup that is away from windows and drafts, where you can mount a growing light above your planting trays and adjust the height of the lights as the plants grow taller.
I got an inexpensive wire-rack shelf unit with adjustable-height shelves, and put it in our dining room, away from our heating/cooling system’s air vents and next to an outlet.
Plant lighting with a timer.
Contrary to what you might think, a window is NOT a good place for your seedlings to get their start. It will be too hot during the day, too cool at night, and will never give them enough direct (overhead) light to grow well.
Instead, get an overhead full-spectrum light fixture, or special grow lights (many of which have a mixture of red and blue bulbs in the wavelengths that will help plants grow best). Or if you have full-spectrum lightbulbs and some spare desk lamps or a long overhead light fixture kicking around, you can just put those over your plants instead.
(Optional) A heating mat.
Most seeds will start to grow best in temperatures at least 70 degrees F; some prefer temps as warm as 75 or even 85 degrees F.
Given that we keep our house on the cool side, getting an inexpensive grow mat with a thermostat seemed like a good investment. While I’m waiting for our grow mat to come in, I’m using our regular heating pad. But I like the fact that the grow mat will allow me better temperature control, and I’ll still have the heating pad available for sore muscles and whatnot.
7. Prep your outdoor space
While your indoor seeds are getting their start, you’ll want to start preparing your garden beds outside. There are a few things to consider:
- At the very least, you’ll need to dig up/turn over the dirt for 8-12 inches down. Get rid of any rocks, random roots, and trash you find in the way.
- Keep in mind, though, you’ll want to wait until the ground is no longer frozen or soggy before you start digging it up.
- While you’re digging, mix in organic matter as you turn the soil over. As it decomposes underground, this organic matter will give your plants nutrients and help your soil to drain more effectively. Think fruit/vegetable peelings and similar food scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and old leaves from the fall that have collected in the corners of your flower gardens over the winter. A small pail or bucket (even something like a #10 coffee can) on the counter is a good place to store these scraps. Or you can get a fancier countertop compost pail with charcoal filters, to help keep odors at bay until you get to take the scraps outside.
If you’re not going to be putting your outdoor seeds/indoor seedlings into the ground, make sure you have large planters or planting boxes on hand for when it’s time to plant. Container gardens are a great option for porches and patios, but you’ll need to keep a close eye on them and water them more frequently, as they tend to dry out faster.
There you go!
Are you planning to grow your own vegetables this year? Is this the first time you will grow vegetables from seeds, or are you a veteran gardener? Any other tips for those who (like me) are new to starting a vegetable garden from seeds? Let us know in the comments!
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