Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
By this time each winter I am chomping at the bit to get my hands dirty. The seed catalogs fill my mailbox, each one taunting me with another new and improved variety of vegetable or flower.
Many catalogs offer new varieties as transplants, but I find these a bit cost prohibitive. If they are available, seeds are usually more economical, but how hard is it to grow your own plants from seed?
The short answer is "it depends". The longer answer is it depends on the type of plant, the environment you have or are willing to create in your home, and the time you are willing to spend nurturing seedlings. I've learned this the hard way, and lost plenty of seedlings to poor planning, or plain old neglect. Unfortunately, science has yet to create a "no maintenance" plant. Living things do need a certain level of care.
Before purchasing seed or supplies, decide where you're going to house your seedlings. Consider what young seedlings need for growth, particularly proper light. As much as I have tried to convince myself otherwise in past years, I have never found a windowsill bright enough to grow healthy seedlings in. But if you want spindly weak seedlings, a windowsill is your best bet.
In my opinion, it is well worth the small investment to purchase a simple fluorescent shop light at your nearest home improvement store to use for seed starting. Use one warm and one cool fluorescent bulb in the fixture, which will cover all wavelengths of light plants need. This is much less expensive than specialty grow lights.
Adjust the fixture to be close to the planted seeds and seedlings without touching them, add a simple household timer set to sixteen hours each day of lights "on", and you have your very own lighting system. Keep in mind that for most seeds, the lights don't need to be used until the seeds germinate. After that though, they're essential.
Temperature is also important for seed germination. Generally speaking, keeping seeds a little on the warm side will speed germination. So a chilly basement is not usually a good choice for seed starting unless you're willing to crank up the heat a little. Another option is to invest in a seed germination heat mat, which provides bottom heat and promotes root growth. The big drawback is that they can be expensive. With luck you may find some bargains online. As tempting as it is to use a heating pad, it could be a deadly combination of water and electricity, since they are not designed for use in germinating seeds.
So you have the perfect spot–time to buy seed and supplies. It may be tempting to use garden soil or potting soil to plant your seeds in, but these two choices are usually too heavy for young seedlings to grow up through. Besides that, garden soil is likely to have fungi and bacteria present that may kill the young seedlings. The best choice is a commercial seed starting mix, available at local retailers. Most are very high in peat moss, are very light and drain well.
The choices for planting containers are numerous. One popular choice is a compressed disk which expands when wet, forming a filled pot ready to plant. These are commonly sold under the brand name Jiffy 7's and come in several sizes. Another option is a pot made of peat moss, which needs to be filled with seed starting mix prior to planting, but like the Jiffy 7's can be planted pot and all when the time comes.
If you choose to use regular pots or recycle plastic household containers, take the time to sanitize them. Wash with soap and water, and rinse thoroughly with a 10% solution of bleach. This reduces the chance of seeds or seedlings succumbing to fungi or bacteria that may be lurking on the surface.
When choosing seeds, it pays to do a little research before you buy. Read seed packets carefully. Catalogs don't always provide planting information, so you may have to do a little research. Some seeds need special treatment, such as nicking the outer coat, chilling, or exposure to light in order to germinate. The internet, the public library, and of course the U of I Extension office are good sources for information.
People often ask whether last year's seeds are still "good". You could just plant them and see what happens, or you can do a germination test. While it is an extra step, a germination test can potentially save you a lot of time and energy. Take a damp paper towel, and place a known number of the suspect seeds on the towel. Place another damp paper towel on top, then gently fold or roll the stack of paper towels together and seal in a plastic bag. Wait the appropriate length of time for that particular seed variety to germinate, and check to see how many of your suspect seeds germinated. Hopefully most have sprouted. If not, you may choose to buy new seed, or sow extra seed than you normally would.
Plant seeds according to the packet or other information you've researched. It is easiest to pre-moisten your planting mix before you start. This helps reduce the chance of washing away tiny seeds you worked so hard to plant! Seeds must remain constantly moist in order to germinate. Keep in mind this doesn't mean wet. The planting mix should be as wet as a wrung out dishcloth. If the mix starts to dry, use a spray bottle to mist the surface, so as not to disturb or wash away seeds. You will not need to fertilize until the seeds germinate, after which you should start with a very dilute solution to prevent burning the young delicate seedlings. As they grow, you can increase the concentration according to package directions.
There are many domed systems on the market for starting seeds, but there are plenty of items around your house that will do the same job for next to no cost. Plastic wrap lightly draped over a newly planted flat will help to keep moisture in, but should be removed as seeds germinate to allow for air circulation. Fast food or deli salad containers with clear tops make great seed starting chambers. Just fill them with your planted pots, cover and you're all set. When the seeds sprout, it is easy to prop the top open to allow fresh air in.
Some plants will need to be thinned, and sometimes the remainder transplanted into larger containers in standard potting mix before they are planted outdoors. Tomatoes are a great example. They should be thinned to one plant per pot after they get their first set of "true" leaves, and typically need to be in at least a two or three inch pot after several weeks. Thin plants with your fingertips or scissors–yanking them out will likely disturb the plants you want to keep.
It takes a little practice to figure out when to transplant, but doing so will allow each seedling more room to develop, and should result in happier, more vigorous mature plants. Don't be afraid to experiment and figure out what works best for your situation. For me, I have limited space so I transplant into fairly small containers if I transplant at all. Most plants besides tomatoes are planted so that by the time they would be transplanted to a larger pot, I can do so outdoors in pots, or gently into the garden.
It is important to time your planting so that the seedlings will be ready to transplant to the garden when the danger of frost is past. For some plants, this will mean planting twelve or more weeks before the last frost. The "typical" last frost date for central Illinois is around Mother's Day, or May 15th. Remember this is not an absolute, just an estimate. You still have to pay attention to the weather forecase before planting outdoors!
You also still need to slowly acclimate your seedlings to the harsh conditions outdoors. After a winter of pampering indoors, seedlings need time to adjust to the sun and wind outdoors. Seedlings should be placed for increasing lengths of time in a sheltered location outdoors over several days before planting for best results.