Growing your own vegetable transplants

Story and Photos by Brenda Lynn

Few things in life are more satisfying than witnessing the transformation of a simple seed into edible deliciousness produced by your own hands. Starting vegetables from seed requires a little more work than purchasing seedlings, but it is vastly more rewarding and saves money in the long run. Winter is the time to think about your spring and summer crops. Perusing seed catalogs on a cold, damp afternoon will cheer you in no time and open your eyes to the vast range of possibilities, most of which you will not find in garden centers. 

Not all seeds need to be started indoors. Peas, radishes, carrots, potatoes, okra, squash, and beans sprout up easily when directly sown. Summer vegetables and herbs such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, basil, and oregano are best started indoors. 

Once seedling have a few true leaves, transplant them to larger containers into nutrient-rich medium. Water from the bottom to prevent root rot.

Before starting seeds, determine your final frost date. The final frost date tells you when it’s safe to transplant delicate seedlings outdoors. Plantmaps.com displays last frost dates by zip code, making it easier than ever to understand our microclimates. Count back, one week at a time, from the last frost date in your area to determine when to start seeds. For example, tomatoes need six to eight weeks to germinate and reach 3-4 inches in height, prior to transplant. Eggplant takes longer than tomatoes to germinate, while peppers are a little quicker. In my USDA Zone 7b garden, the last frost date is April 15. Therefore, I’ll start tomato seeds around March 1. Seed catalogs provide great guidelines for the time it takes seeds to germinate and transplant timing. 

Starting seeds is ultimately less expensive than buying seedlings, but there are a few start-up supplies needed. Seeds need abundant light, warmth, growing medium, moisture, and adequate containers. Starting seeds in a sunny window is tempting, but filtered winter light is neither strong enough nor long enough to give seeds the start they needs. Seedlings started in a windowsill will be spindly, weak, and ultimate less productive in the garden. 

This light stand is simple to build, consolidates space, and allows seed trays to rest on heat mats.

Full-spectrum grow lights are easily obtained online or at garden centers, however a fluorescent 4-foot shop light will also do the trick. Hang the light from the ceiling on an adjustable chain, so that the light can be raised as the seedlings grow. A simple timer that allows the lights to remain on for 14-16 hours during germination will also help provide the right amount of light, without the trouble of having to remember to turn lights on and off. Once hooked on seed starting, you may want to build a light stand with multiple shelves. Once sprouted, seedlings need 12 hours of light each day.

Seedlings also require bottom heat. Summer veggies love warmth, and we must replicate the 70-80 F conditions they crave in order for them to germinate and grow healthy leaves. Heat mats specifically made for seed starting are the best way to go. The heat mats may also be plugged into the timer along with the lights, to replicate warmer daytime temperatures and slightly cooler nights. 

Plant seeds in trays with a plastic cover. Be sure to label the seeds as you plant them; they will look very similar when they first sprout.

Seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate, under the right conditions. Start seeds in any type of container, from pre-made peat pellets in plastic garden center flats, to recycled yogurt cups with drainage holes drilled in the bottom. The seed-starting mix should be loose enough to provide easy drainage. Seed-starting mixes can be purchased or hand mixed using 1 part coconut coir, perlite, or vermiculate and 1 part sterile garden soil. Moisten the soil before planting the seeds to avoid washing them out.

Seeds need consistent moisture. A raised, plastic cover, such as those sold with seed starting kits, creates a greenhouse effect. Loosely covering the containers with plastic wrap also works to collect condensation from the soil, which then drips back down to keep the emerging seeds moist. 

Once the seedlings produce two to three true leaves, transplant them to larger containers with a nutrient-rich soil mix. Create the mix by combining 2 parts sterile garden soil, 1 part compost, and 1 part perlite. Recycled pint-sized garden containers or paper cups with drainage holes are ideal. The heat mats may be removed at this point, as long as the room temperature is consistently 60-70 F. Moisture is key for developing seedlings: too much will result in damping off, and too little will quickly dry out the delicate root system. Place the containers in a reservoir and pour in just enough water to cover the bottom. The seedlings will draw the water up. Feel soil every couple of days to make sure it is consistently moist, but not soggy. 

Gather materials before you begin planting. Pre-moisten soil in a bin before spreading it in the seed tray.

When seedlings are 4 inches high, and outdoor temperatures are in the 70s during the day and 50s at night, it’s time to transplant the seedlings. Before planting them in the ground, harden them off by setting them outdoors in a protected area, gradually increasing the time outside each day. On the first day, put them in a shady spot for one to two hours. After five days, or so, they should spend up to eight hours in sunnier spot. Plant them in the ground on a slightly cloudy day to help acclimate them to full sun. Set up drip irrigation, and place any necessary stakes in the ground at the time of planting to ensure consistent moisture and avoid damaging roots as they grow. 

Now, you can sit back and plan the wonderful meals you’ll make with your delicious, homegrown veggies!

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