Planting flowers, vegetables, and herbs from seeds is an excellent family-friendly activity. There are so many lessons to be found in the simple act of starting seeds.
If you plan on growing a large garden or you prefer a wider variety than found at the garden center, starting a garden from seed can be more cost-effective.
For example, I plan on growing several varieties of peppers, pineapple tomatillos, and a wide array of herbs in our vegetable garden this summer. Since peppers are one of my favorite foods, so I chose seeds for shishito, cayenne, habanero, serrano, bell, lemon drop, and banana peppers. Additionally, I purchased pineapple tomatillo, dill, fennel, and mint seeds.
Here is what you will need to start plants from seed:
- Soil-less seed starting mix or potting “soil”* or expandable peat pellets
- Peat pots, seed tray with drainage holes or clean recycled containers with holes for drainage
- Leakproof tray or container
- Clear lid to cover trays or containers
- High-quality seeds
- Grow light or partially shaded outdoor table
- Labels- Make your own using popsicle sticks or cut strips of plastic from the recycling bin
- Pencil or marker
Make sure your seeds are from a good source and not too old (check the date at the back of the packet). Older seeds may have reduced germination rates. Seeds with a hard seed coat such as peas and nasturtium may be soaked in water for 24 hours before planting to speed up germination.
Seeds require constant moisture to germinate. Thoroughly moisten seed starting mix before filling peat pots, seed trays, or containers. *Seed starting mix is a sterile soil-less peat-based growing medium. While potting soil can be substituted, do not use garden soil or compost as it may contain pathogens that will cause young seedling to die.
Compressed peat pellets expand when placed in water. I find using hot water to soak them before planting seeds, speeds up the expansion of the dry peat inside them. Once the seedlings are ready, you can plant the entire thing to avoid disturbing the roots.
Place your seeds in a small hole about ¼ to ½ inch deep in each pot or cell; the seed package will tell you exactly how deep to plant the seeds, and how many you should plant in each container. Cover over the seed with potting mix, again following package directions on the depth of coverage. Make sure to label your seeds, so you know which is which!
You must never let young seedlings dry out, but trying to water individual seedlings is difficult. Try watering from the bottom by placing the peat pots or seed trays into a larger pan or dish. Fill the outer tray with about ½ inch of water and refill as the seedlings use the water, and the soil begins to dry out. Check daily to make sure soil around seedling is moist but is not overwatered.
Finally, place this tray under a grow light. Choose an adjustable light or make your own using DIY plans available online. Place the grow light close to the plants at first and raise the bulbs as your plants get taller.
Placing seedlings in a window will not provide enough light, and the seedlings will stretch, become weak, and it’s unlikely they will make it to the garden.
Alternatively, you can place trays outside in a partially sunny area, protected area. A grow light helps seeds germinate quickly and more consistently.
As your seedlings sprout, you will notice that some pots have multiple seedlings—thin seedlings to one per container by cutting the weaker stems with a small pair of scissors. This step ensures that the final plant is healthy by eliminating competition for nutrients.
Seed starting can be an exercise in patience; some seeds take much longer to sprout than others. Peppers, for example, can take weeks to germinate.
Once your seedlings have at least one set of true leaves, they are ready to transplant to your garden. How long this takes depends on the vegetable or herb variety, but the seed packet will give you an estimate.
Growing plants from seed is a joyful and rewarding experience for gardeners at any age!
Megan Shearer, Clemson Extension School & Community Gardening Program Assistant