Whether you know it or not, you have ancestral farmer blood flowing through your veins. That’s right your ancestors were farmers, even if they were nomadic hunters they gathered and most likely cultivated a few special plants for food and medicine. There’s no better way to connect to mother earth than getting your hands dirty. Planting a garden not only connects us to nature, but provides a healthy direct source of tasty food. So let’s get started where all life begins… The Seed.
A seed is nature’s most incredible little package, so much life packed into a tiny capsule. A seed is a living breathing organism. Just add water, and… Abracadabra! Well there’s a little more to it than that, but really, it is magical. A seed does need some things to make it to a plant like air, water, light and food but more on that later…
Some seed lingo: To plant a seed: is to “sow” or “sowing seed” or “sow a seed”. When the seed is planted directly into the ground it is called “Direct sowing”. When a seed begins to grow it’s referred to as germination or “Germ” or “Germing” or “Sprouting”.
Sunflower and Peas Germinating
(A plastic bag with a moist paper towel placed inside kept in an evenly warm place is a fast way to germ seeds. Seeds then can be planted in pots or the garden.)
Finding seeds: Before we can plant a garden we need seeds. In the past seeds were carefully collected, dried and stored from the previous year’s crop, but if we are beginners there was no last year’s crop. Luckily there’re many other gardeners and farmers that did that work for you. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, and most of your local hardware stores and plant nurseries all carry seeds in the spring. Small farms to big seed companies sell seeds year-round online. Another option is if you know a person who grows a garden every year, most likely they save seeds and are usually willing to share some seeds and garden knowledge with you.
Now that we found the seeds, which seeds to buy? If you’re anything like me you want to try them all! (buying seeds can become addicting). But unless your wallet’s fat and you own some land, that might not be practical. So lets talk about what seeds to choose to fit your climate and growing space.
Choosing seeds for your climate: First we can narrow down the list with your growing climate or plant hardiness zone. Plant hardiness zone map USDA. You can also find your last frost date and first frost date in your area and count the days in-between. This should give you a rough length of your growing season.
On the back of most seed packets they will provide a map with planting dates and timeline, days from sow to harvest.
Check the back of seed packets for planting information before buying.
Cold/Northern Climates: If you live in a cold climate, most likely your longer season plants like tomatoes, peppers and melons will have to be started indoors 4-8 weeks before your last frost date. This means a sunny south-facing window, greenhouse, sun-room or under a grow light. Look for short season varieties of these veggies for cold climates. The shorter your growing season is the more planning and the more selective your crop choices will be. Luckily there’s an array of short-season varieties available to the northern gardener.
Siberian and Black Krim tomatoes started in a heated greenhouse in March and still very cold outside. Siberian is a short season strain that produces tasty medium-sized fruits, one of my favorites for our short growing season.
Southern/Hot climates: Your options are many with a long growing season, but if you live in a hot climate this means cool weather crops such as lettuce, spinach and greens may bolt (run to seed) in hot weather resulting in bitter-tasting leaves. Look for heat-resistant varieties of these veggies. A shade garden might be practical as well.
Cherokee wax bean and butternut squash seeds are better “Direct Sow” choices after soil has warmed later in the season.
Choosing seeds for your growing space: Don’t have acres for a small farm? Don’t sweat it! A small plot in the yard will produce quite a bit of food. Don’t have a yard? Again don’t panic, a surprising amount of food can be produced in pots or containers in a sunny to partially sunny patio, landscape bed, porch or any other spot there’s room and gets sunshine.
Plants like tomatoes, peppers, swiss chard, lettuce, spinach and kale do well in pots. While other plants like beans, squash, pumpkins, melons, sweet corn, and potatoes are more practical in a garden plot.
Obviously you’re not going to be able to plant rows of sweet corn on your patio but if you love sweet corn then why not grow a few in pots? Combining different veggies in pots can be effective when space is limited. For example you can plant sweet corn with some low laying plants like carrots or radish or lettuce in pots, but don’t expect a bushel of sweet corn at harvest time.
One packet of seeds goes a long way. Unless you’re starting a farm, one packet of each variety should be more than sufficient. One starter tray is sufficient for a small garden or limited indoor space as the plants need as much light as they can get. As they grow they will need more space.
Planting seeds: Now that we have seeds it’s time to plant. If danger of frost is gone in the area you live in then you can direct sow seeds in the garden. But if it’s still a bit early or you are growing longer season plants that require starting indoors weeks before the frost date then you are most likely going to be planting seeds into a starter tray or small pots in a heated space. Now this can be a south-facing sunny window, sun-room or greenhouse.
What we need: Starter tray or small pots, starter mix or potting mix, spray bottle.
Seed starting mix and a starter tray make seed starting simple.
(Seed starting mix is simply fine potting soil, peat moss and some plant food. Potting soil can be used as well but is not as fine as the seed starter mix. Since the seed starter mixes are usually a bit heavy on the peat moss which is acidic, I like to mix the potting soil and Seed starter together in a bin. This makes a nice well-drained mix that’s less acidic and has a bit more food for the seeds to get a healthy start, but is not necessary, both work on their own.)
To start planting fill your tray with soil mix. This is best done over a large bin to catch your excess mix. Once your tray is filled gently run your hand across the top to even out the soil making sure all the cells are evenly filled and give the tray a gentle shake. Do not press down the soil, you want your mix to be loose but the cells full.
Next pick out any large pieces of debris or sticks. Now determine the planting depth of your seeds. If you’re using purchased seeds the packet should have the planting depth on it. In general the bigger the seed the deeper it goes, the smaller the seed the shallower the seed goes. Some seeds are light dependent and are simply tamped into the surface, but most of your typical garden seeds are going to be planted 1/8 inch to 1 inch deep. To plant your seeds take your finger and make a little hole at the right depth and drop in your seeds. After all your seeds are in the holes simply pinch the soil together covering the seed. Once all your seeds are in their new home give the tray a spray-down with your squirt bottle.
Planting pepper seeds 1/4″ deep. Your fingers are great planting tools.
Soil should be kept moist but not wet and should never dry out.
Larger seeds like melons, pumpkins, sunflowers, etc… are better started in small pots or deep-cell trays. Below we are planting watermelon seeds at 1 inch deep in small peat pots. Drop the seed in and push it down to the appropriate depth with your finger, pinch the hole closed and water.
Small pots work well for starting larger seeds.
The seed’s needs: Soil, Food, Temperature, Air, Light and Water.
Soil: Should be Seed starting mix or Potting mix. If direct sowing outdoors it should be well draining garden soil worked over until soil is fine and weed-free.
All soil should be well draining and promote air flow, and have the right pH. pH is measured on a scale of 0-14, with 0 being the most acidic and 14 the most alkaline, and 7.0 being neutral. Most garden plants prefer a pH of 6.0-7.0. A simple effective pH tester can be purchased for cheap if unsure. Most of your potting soils should be ready to go out of the bag.
Food: (N)(P)(K), Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, your basic plant food. Most of your seed staring mix and potting soils come with enough food already mixed in to get a good start. There are many options for additional fertilizers, from granulated to liquid, to making your own compost.
Temperature: Each seed has a germinating temperature and growing temp. Most of your garden seeds germinate between 60-90 degrees(F) but some like it a bit cooler or hotter. The growing temp is usually a bit cooler than the germ temp. There are several seed germ charts available online.
Air: Your seeds need air just like we do. If there’s not sufficient air flow to your seeds they will rot. This means making sure your soil mix promotes air flow and does not become too wet and drown your seeds. Proper air flow in your greenhouse or inside space will prevent your seeds and seedlings from rotting.
Light: Plants need light to grow, some seeds need it to germinate. Where you chose to start your seeds should receive the most over-head light available. If starting your seeds in a south-facing window, be sure to rotate the tray as the seeds begin to germ. Plants not getting sufficient over-head light begin to reach for the light and become lanky, stringy and weak. Your garden or greenhouse spot should be south-facing and/or receive the most sunlight available.
Water: This might be the most important part or trickiest part. Your seeds need to soak up water and stay moist to start growing, but too much water and they rot or drown. You want your soil to be evenly moist and never dry out but you do not want your soil wet and soggy. I tend to start by spraying the trays down for the first couple days then switch to a deeper watering less often. In my experience the number one reason for unsuccessful gardening is over-watering.
Our most important tool in the greenhouse, a spray bottle, can be used to spray down trays or pots without flooding seeds out. When a deeper watering is necessary I simply remove the spray nozzle and put my finger over the hole to limit the water flow.
The magic day: After a few days to a few weeks depending on the kind of seeds you planted and the conditions of their growing environment you should begin to see the magic.
Top left: Tomato sprouting, Bottom left and right: Sunflowers emerging.
Watching those little plants breaking the soil is one of the most exciting and magical parts of the gardening experience. Do yourself a favor, get your hands dirty, plant some seeds and connect to the magic of our mother earth.
Coming soon… Growing Food Part Two: Seedlings & Direct Sowing
Photography by Saxton and Taylor
All Photography in this article is property of saxtonoutdoors.com