Can you imagine planting a diminutive seed, and growing an entire plant? That is what seed starting is. Although the cost of seeds has become somewhat expensive the past few years, they are still a bargain. A package of tomato seeds can provide you with enough tomato sauce to last a year. In our case, that is fifty quarts of sauce. And at three bucks or more a quart, you’ve just saved a bundle of money. And think of all the fun and sense of accomplishment you have along the way. Seed starting is an exciting time of year, one of those activities you can begin in April, or earlier, and it is one of the first steps in gardening. Placing a tiny seed into soil, and watching it become a garden plant, during winter or early spring, is nothing short of magical.

Most of your seedlings should be all set and growing nicely for planting, depending on specie, on or about June 7 here in Maine. Some can go in later, some earlier. We have already installed Brussels Sprouts, and Broccoli. These little plants have so many advantages, if you start your own. The many varied plants are truly exciting and sometimes unique. For example, last year we grew two tomato plant varieties from Russia. These proved to be such a delicious tomato that we saved seeds and are growing them again this year. A friend of mine from Ireland once gave me tomato seeds from his native country. Another friend of ours who lives in Steuben Maine gave us three bean seeds a few years back that look a little like Jacob’s Cattle, and now we have enough that we can use the production for food. There are organizations all about the saving of seeds, seeds often with rather interesting histories. Two of them are Seed Savers Exchange, and Scatter Seed Project. Just Google ‘seed saving’ and you’ll discover a whole new world. But this blog post is not about saving seeds. Therefore, one advantage of growing your own seedlings is the wide and interesting variety available to you.

Seedlings acquired from one of the many nursery stores or big box stores can add up to quite a bit of money when you are attempting to feed yourself for an entire year, as we do. For example the Russian tomatoes I mentioned earlier. We started about two hundred and fifty plants, and planted exactly one hundred of them in the greenhouse, for tomato sauce. (The remainder we gave away to friends.) If we had to purchase those plants, assuming we could find that particular variety, it would cost quite a bit of money. Instead, it only cost the price of a package of seeds, just a few dollars. And so, another advantage of growing your own seedlings is saving a bundle of money.

But in order to grow plants from seeds you will need infrastructure. We use two four-foot long heat mats, placed on an old counter top, next to a ten foot expanse of windows. I installed these windows for this very purpose. We have plodded along sort of ‘okay’ in the past, I guess, but we are planning to upgrade and improve our system. The problem? Our seedlings usually become too leggy, too tall. We admire those wonderful plants that you sometimes see gracing the sidewalks in front of stores, so full, some with fruit already in mid-May. I think they may have had a head start down in Mexico, or some other warm weather sunny climate. But I believe that it is possible to produce seedlings of size and quality here in Maine, that are just as good.

Here’s what you’ll need. In addition to seeds, you’ll need potting soil. Also, you need those little plastic trays to contain the soil and seeds. Most hardware stores carry an entire line of seed starting equipment. We like using a tool called a soil block maker, kind of like a cookie cutter that presses blocks of damp potting soil onto the seedling tray. These soil blocks have little depressions for placing the seeds. Over the planted but not yet germinated seed you’ll need to cover the trays with plastic. I used to use Saran Wrap but now we use a clear plastic lid made for this purpose that is designed to fit the trays. This acts like a miniature greenhouse. After the seedling has a second pair of leaves you then ‘pot up’ to a larger size pot, to allow the roots more room, lest the plants become root bound. Once the seedlings are growing nicely and nearly touching the clear plastic lid, you now remove said lid. You can place the trays of seedlings outside on a nice and warm, sunny day. In fact I recommend it, so that they receive good sunlight. The full sunlight is good for growth, and helps to ‘harden’ the seedlings off, preparing them for life out of doors, for their future in the garden. Consult the seed packet for when to plant your seedlings in the garden. 

Although of additional expense, we believe we need to acquire what is known as ‘grow lights’. (Have I mentioned yet that we are not experts in any of the areas I am writing about, yet?) We will acquire some next week and at some juncture I will report our results. Although it is nearly time to put tomato and cucumber seedlings in the garden, we will be planting seedlings just about all summer, and in August I like starting seedlings for over-wintering onions, and then in September we can begin plants for the fall and winter greenhouse salad greens. So, it isn’t too late to use a set of grow lights.

Now that you have a nice thriving crop of various seedlings, wonderful and exotic tomatoes, cucumbers, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, etc, it is time to collect your watering can, a pail of compost, a trowel, and head down to the garden. Your seed packet will advise you on spacings, and believe me, most plants need plenty of elbow room. They might seem small right now, hopefully not too small, but come august you will realize just how much space they actually need. Dig a small hole, put some compost in the hole, and plant your seedling. That’s about it; with a little effort, you too can have access to all those wonderful and exotic varieties of vegetables.

Thanks for reading, and please join us next time as we talk about composting.

Stephanie Reiser

About Stephanie Reiser

After many years in retail sales, writing, and part-time editing for a small newspaper in New York, I began studying organic gardening and farming, and animal husbandry. I began to read a lot about homesteading, off-grid living, consumerism, materialism, economics, and economic history.