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Seed Starting 101: Getting Started

May 11th, 2010

Making the decision to start plants from seeds instead of buying them at the nursery can be a scary endeavor for someone who’s never done it before. The catalogs are shiny and colorful, promising all kinds of bounty and beauty from a packet of seeds. The terms are often foreign: stratification, open pollinated, heirloom, OG, hybrid, F1, F2, heating mats, air pruning, soil less mix, soil blocks, etc. How does one get started down the road to seed starting success without spending a fortune and ending up with withered, leggy or dead seedlings?

First of all, I’d recommend: START SLOWLY. Start off with one or two flats of seedlings, the investment in time and money with be minimal. You will quickly find out whether or not you want to someday have 15-20 flats to monitor on a daily basis, starting seeds takes a lot of daily attention. Not to mention you have to plant all those seedlings when the time is right (which is usually when you don’t have the time to do it).

Grow a few things from seed that are easy and fairly hardy, almost fool proof.

If you like vegetables, try tomato, pepper or zucchini.
If you like herbs, try basil, oregano, or parsley.
If you like flowers, try petunias, snapdragons or zinnias.

The second thing I’d recommend: READ, LEARN, ASK, READ AND LEARN SOME MORE. Read blogs, books, articles, magazines and anything you can get your hands on. Ask friends, neighbors, or family members that you know start seeds. Search for local seed starting workshops in your area; often greenhouses, libraries, community centers, and farmer’s markets will offer free classes on gardening. I know of 3 different places in my area that offer all kinds of workshops for the new gardener on a variety of topics, seed starting being one of most the popular classes.

The third thing I’d recommend is: DON’T BUY TOO MUCH STUFF. You really don’t need much for seed starting, especially in the beginning. All you really “need” is soil (or starting medium), a container, seeds and a good light source, that’s pretty much it. Don’t be wooed by all the fancy expensive seed starting items and light tables in catalogs and on-line. Plants have been starting themselves for years outside without our help, they certainly don’t need all the bells and whistles that some gardening catalogs would have you believe. When I first started, I used a few old yogurt cups, some home mixed potting soil and a few packs of cheap seeds. Talk to a few fellow gardeners, you may find someone that is willing to give you some advice, share seeds or even loan you a grow light for your first seed starting efforts.

You also want to MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE TIME. Seed starting is fun, it’s amazing to watch the seeds germinate then grow into tiny seedlings, then grow into beautiful plants in the garden and produce beautiful flowers or delicious vegetables. It’s definitely something that I enjoy doing, but it does take time and effort. If you’re a busy person and don’t have time to babysit little seedlings you’re better off buying a few from your local greenhouse each year instead of starting your own. You don’t want to end up with trays of dead seedlings and feeling bad about it, that’s no fun. Perhaps you can find a fellow gardener that has the time and you can work out an agreement, you buy all the seeds and supplies and they grow the seedlings.

And finally, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED IF YOU DON’T SUCCEED AT FIRST. Some seeds are difficult to start, there are diseases that can wipe out seedlings, perhaps you got a bad pack of seeds and sometimes it’s not the right time to start a certain plant. We’ve all had failures, the key is to try again. One year I couldn’t start a chamomile seed, not even one. Most years I end up with more chamomile seedlings than I need.

If you find you don’t have the time or patience to start plants from seed, there’s nothing wrong with buying plants from a good local nursery. For the small home gardener, it’s often much easier to buy already established seedlings. I would recommend not buying from the big box type places, search out a small local place. They’ll be able to give you better advice and information on what you need, what works in your area and tips to successfully grow what you purchase.

What was the first kind of seed you ever started? Any great advice on getting started from you experienced seed starters for all of our beginners?

The rest of the Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Learn More Each Season

Visit my Amazon store to see what seed starting supplies I like.

8 Comments to “Seed Starting 101: Getting Started”
  1. Sense of Home on May 11, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Do you prefer using the kind of container that can be planted directly into the garden or the reusable plastic ones? Is one more successful than the other?
    .-= Sense of Home´s last blog ..Back to Work =-.

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  2. Dave on May 11, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Great tips! Yogurt containers, mushroom containers, and all kinds of other recycled containers make great pots to start seedlings. Lately I’ve been using old sixpacks that my wife’s aunt (who works at a co-op) saved. Nothing ground breaking but they make good containers that were just going to be thrown out. As for my first seed I’ve done so many that I can’t remember but it was probably a tomato.
    .-= Dave´s last blog ..Must be a Magnolia! (Magnolia grandiflora from seed) =-.

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  3. Tommy on May 11, 2010 at 11:46 am

    A question for you—can any plant be started from seeds saved from the prior season’s garden? I thought I remember reading somewhere that some heirloom tomato varieties can’t be started from seed? Something to do with cross pollinization, maybe?
    I always laugh when I get volunteer plants in my garden, from seeds that have survived the compost heap and made it back into the soil. It amazes me when a random squash (it’s usually squash or tomato) will spring up unannounced. And why do these seeds that survived on their own in the soil sprout/germinate healthy and happy, and many of the seeds that I plant in a carefully prepared row, straight out of the new seed packet, never germinate? I have a lot to learn!

    Reply to Tommy's comment

    • Susy on January 16, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      You can save some seeds, others don’t keep as well, it really depends on the variety. Beans and peas should be purchased each year, some seeds such as tomatoes and peppers seem to be viable forever!

      Reply to Susy's comment

  4. mamaraby on May 11, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    The time bit…absolutely that! My husband is in charge of the seed starting and maintenance. I try to stay out of it since I figure I have enough “seedlings” of my own to take care of. It always ends up a good thing that I check on them periodically as I think he under-estimates just how much attention his plant friends need!
    .-= mamaraby´s last blog ..Thoughtful Tuesday – “Rules” for Living =-.

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  5. Amy @ Homestead Revival on May 11, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    I’m SURE my first seed start was a tomato since one that is homegrown is so vastly different that the store variety! I like to use something that is biodegradable to plant in so that the roots are not in shock when transplanted – usually newspaper wrapped around a cylinder like object and the bottom folded up flat. (I may try soil blockers next year). Also, I like to keep my seedlings near a window (but under a light) so that I can crack it just slightly so that a little air is circulating in the room. In the past, I lost seedlings to dampening off because I had the room too air tight and warm. (And of course, mist with a spray bottle at the top for just the first week or so, then water only from the bottom!)

    I confess, I really must resist the urge to plant too much. But if you find that you have, they make lovely gifts for friends. Two or three seeds starts might be just manageable for a beginner and get them interested in gardening.
    .-= Amy @ Homestead Revival´s last blog ..How To Use Mylar Bags and Oxygen Absorbers =-.

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  6. MAYBELLINE on May 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Radishes. Start with radishes.

    You can plant them directly in the ground without all the seed starting paraphernalia. They sprout within a week if the soil is kept moist.
    .-= MAYBELLINE´s last blog ..Mamas’ Day =-.

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    • MAYBELLINE on May 11, 2010 at 2:41 pm

      PS – label what you have planted.
      .-= MAYBELLINE´s last blog ..Mamas’ Day =-.

      Reply to MAYBELLINE's comment


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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