Growing your own veggie transplants

Story and Photography by Yvonne Lelong Bordelon

Growing your own transplants from seed is easier than you may think. All you need is a warm sunny spot, a bag of good, fresh soilless media, clean pots, viable seeds, and a little patience. You’ll enjoy a great sense of accomplishment and pride as you harvest an abundance of safe, high-quality produce.

Edibles started from seed, including tomatoes, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), summer savory (Satureja hortensis), and borage (Borago officinalis) in a variety of containers. You can grow a whole garden of healthy herbs and vegetables for the cost of a few flats of nursery transplants.

Growing your own plants from seed to harvest is not only rewarding, it’s very cost effective and gives you the peace of mind that comes from knowing that no harmful products were used on your vegetables and herbs. Likewise, the probability of soil-borne diseases are greatly reduced by using fresh, unopened bags of quality soilless growing media (with ingredients as vermiculite, peat moss, and perlite) in new or sterilized pots. It is also much easier to find seeds of heirlooms, open-pollinated, and new varieties of edibles than plants at local nurseries. Another bonus is the fact that you can save seeds from open-pollinated species for years.

To make the most of my precious heirloom seeds, when the true leaves begin to develop, I lift out the extra ones and transplant them to another pot.

Seeds can be planted in trays or pots made of peat, molded newspaper, recycled cardboard toilet paper rolls, or plastic. Old plastic pots should be sterilized in a mild solution of chlorine bleach, but new ones are best.

When transplanting tomato plants, the planting hole should be deep enough so that most of the stem is buried and only one-third or so of the plant is above the soil level. This encourages root growth all along the stem, giving you a stronger, better producing plant.

Seed-starting kits that have a plastic pan with no drain holes and a clear cover encourage germination and make it easier to water and transport the seedlings. Cover the seeds with the clear plastic top so there’s adequate airflow, but the soil remains moist until the seeds sprout. Label each set of plants and provide as much sunlight as possible.

Peat pots should be soaked in water before they’re filled. Just place them in the tray, pour water in each one, and let them soak until all are moist.

Growing Medium
Do not use soil from your garden. In order to produce healthy transplants, you need high-quality soilless medium, usually labeled as germination mix or seed-starting mix. These mixes may be a little more expensive, but you’ll get better results. Peat pellets that expand when wet are also a good choice.

Caring for Your Babies
For spring crops, plant seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Always follow the directions on the back of the seed package regarding planting depth, watering, temperature, and exposure. Provide as much light as possible by placing the pots in a south-facing window, under a grow light, or in a greenhouse.

In Louisiana, sugar snap peas should be planted in winter, but the ground is not always dry enough and pea seeds rot. Sprouting the peas inside gives them a head start and ensures germination. You can just pop them into the garden when the soil is ready.

I usually plant three or more seeds, evenly spaced, in each pot. I hate to waste seedlings, especially those of heirloom varieties, so after the young seedlings start to develop their true leaves, I gently lift out the extra ones with a spoon and transplant them to another pot. You must work carefully and be sure to handle the plants by the leaves, not the stems. Another option is to let them grow to a good size and clip off the weaker one when you transplant them into the garden.

Tomato and pepper seeds need warm temperatures to germinate, while others – such as lettuce – must be exposed to light. With lettuce and some herbs, you can plant 20 or more seeds per pot, then divide and replant into other pots or directly into the garden when they are large enough. Tiny seeds, such as summer savory, stevia, and thyme, should be pressed lightly into the soil.

Hardening Off
When the weather is warm enough (above 50 F), take the plants outside for a couple of hours every day. At first, put them in spot that receives partial, morning sun. Over the next week or so, gradually move them into more morning sun, extending the time they’re out. Make sure that they are well watered.

Soil temperatures need to be above 60 F for squash seed to germinate. If you want an early crop, you can start the seeds indoors a few weeks before it’s warm enough outside.

If the weather turns cold or stormy, bring them back inside. The tender seedlings can be crushed by heavy rains and damaged by frost. Once the temperatures are high enough and the soil is not too soggy, the plants can be transplanted to the garden.

Once the seedlings have at least two sets of true leaves, it is safe to transplant them. If the pot is filled with little plants, I usually gently break the root ball into three or four parts and space each part out. The soil line should be even with the base of the plant, just like it was in the pot.

Overcrowded seedlings can be broken into smaller parts when transplanting to the garden.
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