Seed starting is one of the most valuable skills you can have as a gardener. If you want to grow your own food, it starts with being able to grow your own transplants. There are many advantages to growing your own transplants, but here are our top three.
#1 IT'S CHEAPER
Have you been to your local big box store or hardware store lately and priced plants? Nowadays you'll easily pay anywhere between $3-5 per plant! That adds up quickly even if you have a small garden.
Growing your own transplants does involve some startup costs -- trays, mats, lights, etc. But once you have those supplies, the only thing (besides seeds) that you have to buy year after year is the seed starting mix. So in the long term, you'll definitely save money by growing your own plants.
#2 YOU GET TO PICK THE VARIETIES
If you buy your plants at the local stores, you can only grow the varieties that they have on the shelf. And most of the time the selection isn't that great. You'll often find tomato varieties like Better Boy, Celebrity, and Big Beef, but there's not a lot of options beyond that.
If you want to grow a high-performing hybrid or a specialty heirloom tomato variety, you'll have to grow those transplants yourself. By growing your own, you can choose the varieties that are more likely to perform well in your climate. You can also choose to grow varieties that have smaller or larger plants, depending on the garden space you have.
#3 YOU HAVE MORE CONTROL OVER PLANT HEALTH
Those plants at the local stores have likely been pretty stressed at some point. Maybe the store employees forgot to water them one day, or maybe they were stressed during transport to the store. Either way, that plant stress will have some effect on the overall performance of the plant once it's in your garden.
If you grow your own plants, you have complete control over the health of those transplants. You can make sure they are watered when they need it, and you can make sure they go in the ground when they're ready. Plants at the store are often "root-wrapped" and will experience a great deal of transplant shock once planted in the ground. But you can prevent that by growing your own and making sure they get planted when they're ready.
SEED STARTING BASICS: CONTAINERS
Now that we've hopefully convinced you that you should be growing your own plants, let's talk about some of the equipment and techniques that work well. We'll start with the containers, trays, or vessels that you use to start your seeds. There are endless options here, and many people tend to use things they already have on hand. These could include plastic cups, egg cartons, K-cups, and more.
If you're just growing a few plants, clear plastic cups work great. If you're needing to grow 20 plants or more, you probably want to use some type of tray with cells in it. The trays are a great option because you don't have to devote much soil to each seedling. And if a seed doesn't germinate, you haven't lost much.
There are a plethora of options as far as seed starting trays go. These 24-cell setups work great for smaller gardens. But if you have a larger garden or you're growing plants for friends and family, you may consider a tray with more cells. We really like the Proptek 162 trays for most things we grow.
The main thing to remember here is that you don't need a huge transplant. A tomato plant with a 1-2" root ball will perform just as well as a tomato plant in a huge pot. The only difference is that the huge pot required much more seed starting mix to grow. Save your seed starting mix and grow smaller-cell transplants if you can.
SEED STARTING BASICS: SOIL
One of the biggest seed starting mistakes that we see is not using the right soil. If you're growing your own transplants, you need to be using "seed starting mix." A general-use potting mix will not work well because it's too chunky. You need a fine seed starting mix so that the seedlings can form a solid root ball around the soil.
There are many options for quality seed starting mixes, but our favorites include ProMix and Sunshine #4 Mix. Both of these are commercial-grade seed starting mixes that perform great year after year. When looking for a good seed starting, make sure that it has peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. These are the three main components of any quality seed starting mix.
SEED STARTING BASICS: HEAT
A quality heat mat is an investment that you'll have to make if you're going to grow your own transplants. We don't use a heat mat for all the seeds we start in trays, but they're an absolutely necessity for things like tomatoes, peppers, tomatoes, okree, pumpkins, etc. -- all those warm-season crops that we like to grow.
Warm-season vegetables like tomatoes and peppers need warmer soils to germinate. But we're usually starting those seeds in the winter months when it's still cold outside. So we have to use heat mats in our greenhouse to get the soil temperature warm enough for those seeds to germinate. For most warm season vegetables, you'll want to try and keep the soil temperature in your trays around 85°F for best germination results.
Unless you're a crocodile, you're probably not keeping your house thermostat at 85°F. As a result, you'll also need a heat mat if you're growing transplants indoors. Make sure you get a thermostat with your heat mat so you can monitor the soil temp in your trays or seed starting containers. If you get the soil too hot, seeds may not germinate well. If the soil is too cool, seeds won't germinate or will be slow to germinate. The thermostat will help you keep the soil at the ideal temperature for the best germination rates.
SEED STARTING BASICS: LIGHT
If you're growing transplants in a greenhouse, you likely won't need any grow lights. But if you're growing indoors, you will need a grow light setup. There are lots of different lighting options, but white LED lights will perform the best. Also make sure your lights can be easily raised and lowered depending on the height of the plants under them.
If you grow seedlings on a kitchen counter with fluorescent ceiling lights, you'll quickly realize the importance of adjustable-height grow lights. If the light is far from the plants, they will "reach" for the light and the plant stems will become "leggy." No one likes leggy plants.
Once seeds germinate, you'll want to lower the lights so that they sit right above the plants. This will keep them from reaching for the light and eventually becoming leggy. Choose a light setup that's easy for you to use and that fits within your budget.
SEED STARTING BASICS: FERTILIZER
Once seeds germinate and the seedlings form their second set of leaves (also known as "true leaves"), they'll likely need some form of regular feeding to keep them healthy. Most seed starting mixes are sterile (as they should be), and they don't have many nutrients to feed the seedlings. We like to use a spray bottle or a small, hand pump sprayer to fertilize our seedlings.
When fertilizing seedlings, you'll want to make sure you use a fertilizer that has a somewhat balanced N-P-K analysis. You can use something like Miracle Gro or 20-20-20, but be careful with it. Too much of these products can burn and kill your seedlings if you're not careful. I recommend mixing no more than 1/4 cup of 20-20-20 to 1 liter of water for fertilizing seedlings.
If you want to go the organic route, Agrothrive General Purpose Fertilizer works great for feeding seedlings. We usually mix a cup of the Agrothrive liquid fertilizer per liter of water. Because it's organic, you don't have to worry about burning the plants like you do with the synthetic fertilizer. Be sure to use the code "lazydogfarm" to receive a 10% discount on your Agrothrive order.
You'll want to feed your seedlings every week until they're ready to go in the ground. If they seem to be growing slow and your outside temperatures are good for planting, you can increase the fertilization frequency to twice a week. This will "push" the transplants to grow faster and allow you to have a viable transplant in a shorter amount of time.
THE FIRST STEP IS TO TRY
Seed starting is not a skill that you'll develop overnight. The more you practice it, the better you will get. It does require a bit of precision, much like baking. But once you determine what supplies and methods work best for you, it's pretty easy. Once you've developed that skill, you'll have it with you for the rest of your life. And hopefully you'll take the time to teach others so they can grow their own transplants as well!