Are you drooling over the garden catalogs arriving daily in your mail box? Are you longing to get out into the garden? Get an early start on the season by growing your own transplants from seeds! Although this will not save you money—unless you want to grow a lot of one kind of plant—it will allow you to grow varieties not available in the garden center, or to use seeds you or friends have saved. Growing your own transplants will also give you a head start on growing plants like tomatoes that take too long from direct seeding in the garden to fruiting for our growing season.
When to begin? Timing is everything
Choose what you want to grow, then use the Extension planting calendar for Western North Carolina (see Resources below) to figure out when you need to start the seeds to have the transplants ready to put in the ground at the right time. Study your seed packets for more precise information about how long before your planting date you should start each seed type and how deep to plant them. If you don’t have seed packets, Suzanne Ashworth’s book, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Grower is one useful book for seed-starting.
Starting the seeds
Plan to use grow lights, as even a very sunny window doesn’t give enough light to grow strong plants. (See the blog Starting Seeds Indoors: Using Grow Lights.) You can start your seeds in small cell packs, peat pots or cubes, or reuse clean plastics, such as individual yogurt containers. Make sure anything you use has holes for drainage. Start your seeds in a sterile commercial mix, that does NOT contain fertilizer. Plants don’t need fertilizer until they have their first true leaves! To grow the strongest plants, move seedlings to a pot one size larger once they are established and growing steadily.
Hardening off the seedlings
Before planting seedlings in the garden, they need “hardening off” to prepare them for tougher outdoor conditions. Don’t try to rush the season for tender plants or a late freeze may ruin all your hard work! A week or so before you’re ready to plant, start putting your seedlings outside in a shady place during the day. Be sure to keep them well-watered and out of strong winds. Bring them in at night. After a few days of this, if night temperatures are above 45°F, you can leave them out to get them used to more sun and gentle breezes.
Last step: planting in the garden
Ideally, put your plants in the ground on a cloudy day, or after the hottest part of the day. Water about an hour before planting and then again when they are in the ground. Make sure peat pots or cubes are thoroughly soaked and completely underground so they don’t wick water away from the plant.
Article written by Joyce Weinberg, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.