My absolute favorite thing for starting seeds are soil pucks. They are inexpensive, store well, take up very little space, and are the easiest to transplant without disturbing the roots.
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You usually see these in big box stores in their own handy plastic greenhouse. The largest packages come in a pack of 72 for less than $10. I like the small cardboard refill boxes that come in a pack of 36. All you need to do to “activate” these are to soak them in water until they grow. Once re-hydrated, you can insert a seed in it! Be sure to keep it moist while you wait.
There’s nothing more thrilling than to check your peat pucks and find a sprout has emerged from the soil!
Starting seeds vs buying plants
The reason I love to start seeds is because it’s like I’m helping to create life. I’m giving an “assist”. It seems more genuine that way, especially when I tell someone “I grew this”, because I actually grew this from a tiny dormant seed.
Seeds are much cheaper than buying plants. Seed packets are $3-$5 and contain somewhere between 20-500 seeds per packet, depending on the plant. Plants from the nursery can be from $5-$20 each. You pay for convenience when you buy the plant. A nursery tomato plant costs $10, or I can buy a seed packet for $5 and grow 20 plants. Nursery plants are convenient because you don’t have to wait, and you can get fruit faster, but you pay extra for convenience.
To begin the seed starting process, you need to select your seeds. I like to use only non-GMO, heirloom variety seeds and my absolute favorite source is Baker Creek Seed Company in Mansfield, MO. They offer over 1800 heirloom varieties from all over the world. You can visit their seed farm and pioneer village in the beautiful Ozark hills. They also send out a full color seed catalog every year for free.
Choose the right seeds
When planning a garden, it’s important to choose varieties that do well in your climate. Several factors like humidity, heat, length of the growing season, and yearly rainfall contribute to the success or failure of crops.
Climate and growing seasons
I live in the South and it gets really hot in the summer- too hot for many vegetables to survive. In the heat of the summer, I can still grow heat loving veggies like okra. Okra is one of the most heat and drought tolerant vegetables on Earth. There’s a good reason why Southerners love okra: pickled, fried, roasted, dried, dehydrated, whatever. It’s because it keeps producing when everything else has succumbed to the heat.
In Oklahoma, July and August are the hottest months of the year with temperatures reaching up to 120 degrees F, which makes for some crispy plants and some cranky gardeners. 120 degrees F is the highest temp ever recorded in Oklahoma, in June of 1994. The good news is, we have two full gardening seasons if you start indoors.
In Oklahoma, we can start seeds for Spring in January-February, transplant in late March, and harvest in June-July before it gets too hot. For fall gardens, start seeds in July-August indoors, bring outside in early September, and harvest in October-November, some crops still producing under cover through the new year when it’s time to start seeds for Spring again. Doing it this way keeps your gardening year round.
Way up North in Alaska, they have the opposite problem. The growing season is very short because the majority of the year, it’s too cold. The record high in summer is 100 degrees F and the record low in winter an astounding -80F! Yeah, I don’t think that row cover is going to help. Indoor gardens, heated greenhouses, and starting seeds indoors help alleviate stress of having a short growing season.
Where to start seeds indoors
I have a large, South-facing window in my bathroom where I like to start my plants indoors. It just so happens that this is also the location of the bathtub, so I can water them right there. Since the light is indirect, once my seeds have sprouted, the seedlings need to be turned every couple of days so they don’t grow sideways or become leggy.
Artificial light is really helpful for starting seeds indoors. Just a couple of under-cabinet lights zip-tied to the underside of a wire shelf is all you need. These come in a variety of strengths, with different contraptions and can get really expensive. All you really need to start seeds is a cheap one made for under cabinet lighting, but with a bulb made for plants.
The Paper Towel Method
This is my seed germinating method of choice. I like to have as much control of the process as possible. This helps me avoid wasting seeds and time. Some plants, like corn, sunflowers, and pumpkins won’t do well in soil pucks because they are too large and will quickly outgrow them. The rule of thumb is: if the seed is big, the plant will be big too. Best to use a container of soil instead of a seed puck for these types of plants.
Simply sprinkle a little bit of seeds onto a moistened paper towel and place inside a plastic container with a lid. The seeds will germinate with a high germ rate and you’ll see a “tail” emerge.
Now just grab some tweezers and carefully extract a seed.
Place the seed tail-down into the prepared soil puck and lightly cover the hole with some of the soil.
Keep your seeded pucks moistened, being careful not to let them dry out. You can do this by using a mini greenhouse, or some kind of makeshift transparent container. Rotisserie chicken containers are good for this.
Be careful that your soil pucks don’t start growing mold. Leaving the lid on when there’s no light will cause mold to grow overnight. I prefer to leave my pucks uncovered and use a small fan to keep the air circulating. They do dry out faster, but they’re easy to water. A bonus to the fan is that the sprouts grow stronger stems and get used to being blown around by wind.
Before long, a sprout will emerge. Depending on the seed, it may look like a little green hump.
It’s alive! What an awesome miracle of life.
Once you are ready to take them outside, you’ll need to “harden them off”. This is easy in the fall, because your sprouts will be growing when it’s hot. Hardening off is about getting the plants used to outdoor temperatures and also to get them used to being blown around. This process takes about a week. Start off gradually, especially if it’s still cold in the spring.
Check the spacing requirements for each plant. Some plants need an entire square foot of space, others can fit several in one square foot. Square foot gardening is great for small spaces.
Now that you know how to start from seed, seed catalogs are going to be your new addiction. Luckily, seed packets aren’t expensive and you can store them for up to 4 years indoors. I’ve started seeds that were over 5 years old before, but that’s not the norm. If you start more seeds that you can plant, share! Seedlings make great gifts for your gardening friends.