I thought this post might resonate with readers this time of year, so here it goes!
Homesteading usually = Gardening in some shape or form. Whether you are growing a tomato plant on your porch or planting 30 varieties of tomatoes on your back acre, gardening is integral to homesteading. Again, you don’t have to go large scale here!
Here’s a picture of our plot. It’s about 20 foot by 40 foot. I do grow other veggies and fruits in pots and beds outside of the main garden. However, the bulk of what we grow starts here. This past weekend, we got the tiller out and turned over all the leaves and kitchen scraps we have been tossing in the plot since last Fall. A couple of weeks ago, the kids and I planted seeds to start indoors. If you do it right, starting your garden from seed can be so very rewarding!
First, let me tell you about the first time I tried starting all my plants from seeds. Long story short, it was a disaster. I first tried vegetable gardening the first year my husband and I were married. We married in January 2005 in Louisiana. So that very first year we had a vegetable garden, I decided I was going to start everything from seed. I had some Solo cups, some potting soil, and my seeds. I figured that was good enough. I put all the cups in the sun every day. I planted the seeds at what I thought was far enough from my transplant date to give them a good, long time to grow strong before I put them in the ground. So why did it turn out to be a disaster? Lots of reasons. Basically, I did every single step along the way WRONG. But I was a newbie, and didn’t know what I was doing. Thankfully, my husband and I had a green-thumbed friend who educated me a lot about growing things. And every year since then, we have learned more and more about how to grow a productive garden.
Of course, that was the last time I planted everything from seeds. For the next 12 years, I bought my started tomato plants, cucumber plants, squash, and peppers from the local nursery right next door to me. I still planted things like lettuce, snap beans, and corn from seed simply because they are very easy to start.
Well, this year is going to be different. I’m not sure what made me decide to get seeds this year. Maybe it was the allure of the seed catalogs I get in the mail all winter. Maybe it was the fact that I recently got very interested in heirloom plants and seed saving. (Heirloom plants are varieties whose seeds produce the same kind of fruitage the parent plant does, so you can save seeds from year to year to grow the following season.) Maybe it was because a little part of me never really gave up my original plan of having a whole garden started totally from seed. Maybe it was because I really wanted to be a part of the entire life cycle of our garden. Maybe it was a little of all those reasons. At any rate, I got on Pinterest to find the best place to buy heirloom seeds. One company kept coming up on all the “Best Of” and “Top Ten” lists: Seed Savers Exchange. So I visited their site, and to my surprise, I found everything I was looking for! So this year, everything in our garden will be heirloom, and I can save seeds for next year!! I will do a post at a later date about the benefits of growing heirlooms, but today we are just focusing on how to start plants from seed successfully. Just an extra note in praise of SSE: just about all my seeds germinated beautifully!
With my seeds in hand, I was raring to go. But, alas, it was only January. That brings me to the first mistake I made that very first year. I planted my seeds too early. The general rule of thumb is to start your seeds indoors either 4-6 or 6-8 weeks before your transplant date. Your transplant date is the date you will put your plants in the ground outside. It is also the date of the last frost in your area. Now in Louisiana, the rule was to wait till Good Friday, the Friday before Easter. You may have a light frost on Easter weekend, but no frost after that. So, even if Easter fell in late March, January was way to soon to start my seeds. By the time I wanted to plant my tomatoes in the ground, they were so starved for space to grow that they really looked unhealthy and didn’t do very well producing.
Up here in Maryland, the rule of thumb is nothing in the ground before Mother’s Day in May. There are always some gutsy, brave souls who laugh in the face of nature and put their plants in earlier, like mid-April. I’m not one of those people. I don’t want to have to run around every night there’s a frost trying to cover my plants so they don’t freeze. I have also found that you usually don’t get your crops any earlier if you transplant earlier than the last frost date. Plants are smart. They like nice, warm ground, and they won’t grow well till they get it. There are exceptions to this rule. You always have cool weather vegetables like beets, radishes, and turnips (my daughter and I planted those yesterday and it is only the beginning of April) that prefer to get started when it’s still cool. And a freeze usually won’t bother them too much. However, tomatoes, peppers, cukes, and squash like warmth, so definitely wait to transplant them.
So, the kids and I started our seeds in late March. We started tomatoes, peppers, Brussels sprouts (my newfound love, despite their lack of love for me), cucumbers, summer and winter squash. All of these plants will go in the ground around May 10.
Now that we know WHEN to plant, let’s go into my other mistakes I made as a newbie gardener. Hopefully knowing how I messed up will keep you from experiencing some of the frustration I went through that first summer. I will also recommend listening to the Joe Gardener podcast if that’s your thing. The episodes on Seed Starting were invaluable to me this year!
Second mistake: I used the wrong containers. Actually, the red Solo cups may have worked just fine… if I had poked drainage holes in the bottoms. I didn’t, though, and my soil got waterlogged. Seedlings HATE waterlogged soil. You can see from my pictures farther down that you don’t have to go to a lot of expense container-wise when starting seeds. I saved egg cartons for that purpose. They are easy to label, don’t require a lot of soil, and cutting them in half gives you a both a planter and a water receptacle! For goodness’ sake, though, be smarter than I was and poke drainage holes in them!
Third mistake: I used the wrong soil. What?? Wrong soil?? Twelve years ago, it never occurred to me that using regular potting soil from the store could actually be deadly to my seedlings. Why? Simply put, potting soil is usually not sterile, so fungi and bacteria can reside there and wreak havoc on young plants. Seed starting mix, however, is sterile. It usually consists of Peat moss or Coco peat and vermiculite or perlite. These are very fine, loose mixes that make it easy for the seedlings’ roots to “breathe” and grow. The looseness of the soil also makes thinning seedlings very easy, as the roots do not get tangled in the soil or with the other seedlings. So when you transplant the seedlings, there’s very little to no root damage done to the plants, and that’s a good thing! When I planted seeds this Spring, I used a 1:1 mixture of seed starting mix and vermiculite. You can see your different options for both Here and Here.
Fourth mistake: I over-watered AND I top-watered. My line of thought back then was that watering the plants every day ensured they would be healthy. It’s true that plants require water, but they often require less than you think. I was way, way, way, overwatering them! Think about it: it doesn’t rain every day in most places in the U.S. Yet, people everywhere have nice healthy gardens that they seldom, if ever, water. This doesn’t apply to droughts, of course, but hopefully you can see the point I’m trying to make here! 😉
Top-watering can also be a bad thing for brand new baby plants. Damp top soil can be a breeding ground for the fungus and fungus-like organisms that cause “damping off”, which basically “cuts” the stem of the plant off near the soil line. This actually happened to several of my plants that first year and I blamed bugs, not knowing any better. Now, thanks to Joe Gardener, I am a little wiser. The prevention of damping-off lies in responsible watering. Again, top-watering can be a bad thing once your seeds have sprouted. To combat that, I dampened the soil slightly before I planted. Then, when I saw it was drying out, I added water to the water receptacle (aka the top half of the egg carton) so the plants could draw water up through their roots. You can see the steps to take in the pictures below. So far, I haven’t seen any signs of infection! Still, there is a need to be cautious and avoid “bottom watering” too heavily. Remember, a damp plant is a sad plant! *Scratch that. I found one tomato seedling exhibiting signs of damping off. I pulled that sucker out QUICK to avoid spreading the infection to the other plants. Make sure you do the same!
Fifth mistake: I used the wrong light. This may seem weird to you… it definitely seemed weird to me that there good be good and bad light for plants. But like I said earlier, plants are smart. They know the difference between artificial light and legit sunlight! They also know the difference between sunlight through a window and sunlight out in the open. So during my first attempt to grow from seed, I put the seedlings by a sunny window (in January, remember, when there’s like 8 hours total of daylight, with very little direct light). On warmer days, I put them outside on the edge of our carport where they could soak up some full sun. This did not go well. My plants were very “leggy”, very long stems that seemed to be reaching heavenward to get more light.
This time around, I learned that seeds for your Summer garden need more than just a couple hours of direct sunlight. They need 8 whole hours of it! Now, that’s hard to accomplish in March or even April using just the sunniest spot in your house. The solution? Take a look at the picture below. You COULD buy an LED grow light like This one. I considered it. Seeing as this year was kind of an experiment, I decided to take the cheaper route and use the lights I already had on my kitchen counter and under the microwave oven. I learned over the winter that you need to have the seedlings 2 inches away from the light to prevent legginess, therefore helping the plants get sturdy thick stems and healthy leaves. I got close, probably about 4 inches. I keep them under the light about 12-14 hours a day. As you can see in the pictures, very few of my plants are leggy. The Brussels sprouts are, unfortunately, and some of the winter squash. But my tomatoes and cukes and peppers did pretty well. At any rate, I’m happy with the results of a first try.
Sixth mistake: I neglected to harden off my plants. (Wow, writing all this down makes me realize I made A LOT of mistakes! Lol!) I was under the mistaken impression that because I put my plants outside a couple days here and there, I could plant them right outside when the time was right and they’d be fine. Wrong.
“Hardening off” your plants means getting them used to the outside weather little by little. In your house, your plants are used to a regular temperature, no wind, and no strong sunlight. Putting them in an outside environment directly from your safe inside environment will lead to shock and even death for some or all of your plants.
It takes a little time to accomplish a successful hardening off, but it is time well spent. We just recently had some nice warmish days, so I put all my cartons of seedlings outside. I watered them and let them sit on our deck for about 3 hours to start off the process. Then, I brought them inside again to safety. As it gets closer to transplanting time, they will spend increasing amounts of time outside, and then transitioned into staying out at night (as long as there is no freeze). All in all, hardening off takes 1-2 weeks. I have heard it suggested that you keep a fan on your seedlings when inside. I didn’t do that this time around. However, the idea is that the fan simulates the breezes that the plants will experience outside, therefore strengthening their stems. It also helps prevent damping-off.
Seventh mistake: I underestimated the power of the greenhouse effect. I never realized how much heat can be made simply by placing a piece of plastic wrap or a clear plastic lid over your seed containers. This warms the soil, which helps promote germination. I tried that this year (thanks again, Joe Gardener) by placing a small piece of plastic wrap over all my seed cartons and then placing them under their lights, carefully flipping the sheet of plastic each time I noticed that condensation had built up on the underside. It worked beautifully, and I will be doing this from now on.
Eighth (and final, I think) mistake: I never transplanted my seedlings into their own separate containers. Yep, you start ’em in one container, then transplant into another, and finally plant them in the ground. As you can see in the pictures I have already posted, there are several seedlings growing in each “egg hole” of the carton. If I let them get too big, they will start competing for space and nutrients and be stressed OUT. Not good! So today, I will round up my old containers I saved from previous trips to the plant nursery (I knew they’d come in handy one day!), clean them out well, and transplant each one of my seedlings to their own little home. Why didn’t I start out this way? Good question. Here’s the answer: Right now I have about 100 seedlings growing in 7 egg cartons. I probably could’ve used less, but I was afraid of mixing up varieties of tomatoes and peppers, so I didn’t. If I planted 100 seedlings in 4-packs and 6-packs like you get at the nursery, there’s no way on earth I would’ve had the space to take care of them properly. Therefore, we use smaller containers to start the seeds, then expand our way out as it gets warmer and more light outside.
One more thing about transplanting the seedlings: Don’t transplant until the seedling has at least one set of “true leaves”. True leaves are the leaves that an adult plant has, not the two little nub leaves that you first see when the seed sprouts. Here’s a couple pictures of what I mean.
So there you have it, a long list of my many mistakes that first time I tried to grow our garden from seed. I’ve learned a lot since then, and hopefully saved you some trouble, expense, and mad frustration crying.
Top points to remember: Don’t start your seeds too early. Use sterile seed starting mix. Don’t overwater them. Make sure you have containers that drain well. Give lots of close light. Harden plants off gradually. And HAVE FUN! Starting your garden from seeds can and will be a real learning experience. When you gather your first harvest in the summer, knowing that you have been with these plants since the very beginning and had a part in every part of their lives will feel so good!
Thanks so much for joining me today! Please don’t forget to “follow” this blog so you can get an email update each time I post! And remember, homesteading can be very rewarding and really fun; just take it one step at a time!
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