Step-by-step guide to starting your own seeds

Extensive experience is not required; you too can grow healthy tomato seedlings like these. — File photo by Susan Safford

Tomatoes and much more can be yours at modest cost when you sow and grow your own. Those unfamiliar with these activities might find starting out intimidating but there really is nothing better than plunging right in, because gardeners are made, not born.

Getting started is easy; most challenging is providing the indoor space to germinate and grow on the seedlings. Decide where you can do this. Amount/variety is contingent on how much room and good light there is. Can it tolerate water? Very little professional equipment is needed but the one item that should be purchased is good quality seed starting mix, which is milled extra fine and contains perlite. Do not use ordinary garden soil.

For germinating your seed, use clean flowerpots or recycled, well washed, plastic containers, such as takeout or yogurt. Or purchase components that fit a holder tray called a ten-twenty. Well cared for, they last years. These include: twenty-row trays for germinating seeds; tray inserts variously configured, of from 15 to 72 two modules; perforated- and basket-bottom trays; and leak-proof, solid-bottom base trays for bottom watering. The above containers will house the seeds as they germinate and become seedlings, after which they will be shifted to different, larger growing modules.

Moisten the mix – either by adding water directly to the bag or by placing mix in a five gallon mud bucket, dishpan, or even wheelbarrow tray and incorporating water – until it is evenly damp but not overly moist. Fill the containers you have chosen with the mix and tap to settle the contents. Leave some head space.

Labeling is important. Write the name and the date. Wooden or plastic pot tags are available everywhere; or recycle those that came with purchased plants by over-writing with a sharpie; or cut up plastic containers, such as bleach jugs, into pot tag shapes; or use masking tape.

Make furrows about one quarter inch deep using a pencil or ruler laid on edge. Check the seed packet for depth and spacing specific to the seed variety; sow thinly, then fill and firm the furrows. Very fine seed, such as nicotiana, is often evenly distributed over the mix surface and covered by sifting soil over it between your hands to cover. Some seed, such as white seeded lettuce varieties, requires light to germinate and is left uncovered. Read the seed packet instructions carefully.

Water or mist gently. Kitchen sink sprayers at half volume or sprayer bottles are good. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, pane of glass, Plexiglas, or place inside a plastic bag. Clear plastic domes are available to fit ten-twenty trays. Eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes are warm weather crops and appreciate being placed in a warm spot. Crops such as lettuce, cabbage, spinach, leeks, onions, and radish are cool season crops and can be grown cool.

Check frequently, and do not allow mix to dry out, watering from the bottom as necessary. When germination occurs, give the seedlings maximum light and remove the covering. This is the phase when damping-off can occur, and now ventilation is important.

When seedlings have grown one or more sets of true leaves they can be shifted (“pricked out”) to larger modules with more growing room. Repeat the filling process as above, first dampening the mix. It is unnecessary this time to use seed-starting mix. Using regular soil-less mix yields good results, as does compost. There are many proprietary brands, such as Container, Pro-Mix, Metro-Mix 360, or Vermont Compost Plus.

Using a micro-trowel – an old table fork or pencil – press straight down into the germinating container and delicately lever up, digging out a little clump of seedlings and roots. Gently tease it apart. Holding each tiny plant by a leaf between thumb and forefinger, make a hole in the planting mix and dangle the roots into it. Press the mix gently around the roots and plant the next, and the next, and the next, until you have your required number. Mist to water in.

Begin feeding your plants now, about once a week. Use a good liquid fertilizer or fish emulsion diluted to half normal strength. Continue to give the seedlings as much light as possible. Turn them regularly so they grow straight and don’t lean.

When the weather permits, the plants are ready to go into the garden, but not without undergoing the process called “hardening off.” This involves gradually acclimating the tender indoor-grown plants. Put them outside in a protected, shaded spot for a half day at first; advance to two or three full days, then gradually move them into full sun, starting with mornings then all day long. This is a lot of moving – out in the morning, back in at the end of the day – but will enable plants to make the transition from inside to outdoors without setbacks.

Timing of sowing sounds complicated but with the help of a calendar is not hard. By May 15 we can usually depend on settled weather and nighttime temperatures above 50Fº. Count back from then by the number of weeks mentioned on the seed packet to calculate start times.

Nice to Have:

A propagating mat plus thermostat

Height-adjustable grow lights

“Wonder Waterer” or “Dramm Water Breaker”

Starter pack of Ten-twenty tray/module systems

Seed Sources:

Comstock, Ferre & Co.

263 Main St., Wethersfield, CT 06109, 860-571-6590

Fedco Seeds,

POB 520 Waterville, ME 04903-0520, 207-873-7333

High Mowing Organic Seeds,

76 Quarry Rd., Wolcott, VT 05680, 802-472-6174 (available at SBS)

Johnny’s Selected Seeds,

955 Benton Ave., Winslow, ME 04901-2601, 877-564-6697 (available at SBS)

Pinetree Garden Seeds

POB 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260, 207-926-3400

Seed Savers Exchange

3094 N. Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101, 563-382-5990

Cold hardy seed-sown crops for early outside:

Onions, leeks, spinach, cabbage, carrots, Asian, salad, and cooking greens, beets, radishes, parsley-dill-cilantro-thyme, peas, broccoli, rapini, turnips, kohlrabi.