How to Grow a Garden from Seed

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” – William Blake

Thinking about starting some plants from seed? It’s that time of year again. Everywhere you go there are seed starting supplies from independent garden centers to your grocery store. Someone said the other night in a chat that growing seeds made them feel rich because of all the potential plants!  When I first started gardening I thought growing from seeds sounded like a great idea. They are less expensive than plants and I could grow so many! It seemed so easy! But I learned it takes a little practice, skill and some knowledge gathering to get the results you want.

I have to admit even now I am really just a small scale seed starter sticking to the easiest vegetables and annuals. My favorite vegetables to start are tomatoes, peppers, radishes, corn, cucumbers, and summer squash.  You can see my 2016 Vegetable Garden on Plants Map. My favorite annuals to start are Angelonia, Ornamental Peppers, Violas and Pansies.

Mistakes that I made as a beginner with starting seed:

Frost Date: Not knowing the average last frost date for my area. Most of the online searchable frost maps are unfortunately not accurate or updated.  The most accurate way to get frost information is locally by asking a gardener or contacting your local cooperative extension. Frost dates can vary over a small geographic area depending on micro-climates. It’s a good idea to start a journal to record the actual last and first frost dates for future reference.

Timing: Starting seeds at the wrong time either too early or too late. Read the packet and know when your last frost date is for starting seeds in the spring. Starting seeds indoors gives them an early start and you will get an earlier reward. However, some plants don’t transplant well and it is best to wait to direct sow in the garden after frost and the soil has warmed.

plant seedlingChoosing a Medium: Seeds grow in dirt, right? Wrong. I didn’t use the optimum medium to start seeds indoors.  It’s better to use a seed starting medium that has been sterilized and is free of soil and fertilizer. You can mix your own or buy a seed starting mix in a bag. This lighter medium makes it easier for seeds to get their start.

Dormancy and Germination: I didn’t understand that seeds have different needs to break dormancy and germinate. Moisture, soil temperatures, and light needs vary depending on the seed.

Lighting: I underestimated the light requirement needs of the seedlings. If starting indoors, a southern exposure window is good but an inexpensive fluorescent light is even better.

My best tip is to start easy and simple with a small investment. Then experiment with more seeds and grow your seed starting operation as you learn.  If you are like me and need some visual ideas to help get you started see this Pinterest Board: Plants Map/Seed Starting Ideas.

I also invite you to plant a seed and start your garden on Plants Map! Share what you’re starting from seed and growing this year by adding a garden on Plants Map too. Also see How To Digitally Plan & Organize Your Vegetable Garden with Plants Map and How to Make Seed Packets..with Plants Map Links.

Seed Starting Resources

Below is a collection of resources to help with learning on how to start seeds including vegetables, annuals and perennials.  I tried to collect resources primarily from Cooperative Extensions throughout the country. Please note that the timing to start seeds varies depending on the average last frost date for your area. Check with your local Cooperative Extension for additional fact sheets and publications for specific seed, vegetable and growing topics.

University of Minnesota Extension: Starting Seed Indoors (USDA Zones 3-5)

The University of Maine Extension: Starting Seeds at Home (USDA Zones 3-6)

Virginia Cooperative Extension: Plant Propagation from Seed (USDA Zones 5-8)

Purdue University Cooperative Extension: Starting Seeds Indoors (USDA Zones 5-6)

Univ. of Missouri Extension: Starting Plants Indoors From Seeds (USDA Zones 5-7)

University of Florida Extension: Starting Vegetable Gardens from Seed (USDA Zones 8-11)

Colorado State University Extension: Growing Plants from Seed (USDA Zones 3-7)

Texas Cooperative Extension: Back to Basics How to Start Seeds Indoors  (USDA Zones 6-10)

Washington State University Extension: Propagating Plants from Seed A Pacific Northwest (Washington, Idaho, Oregon) Extension Publication; 24 pages pdf. (USDA Zones 3-9)

Additional Topics

University of Illinois Extension: Starting Perennial Flowers from Seed Can Be a Challenge

Fine Gardening: 10 Perennials Easily Grown from Seed

Montana State University Extension: Growing Trees and Shrubs from Seed (pdf)

University of Minnesota Extension: Saving Vegetable Seeds: Tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans

And For Further Reading: The New Seed-Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel