Whether you start off inside or out, growing your own vegetables from seed is an immensely satisfying process. While you can of course buy established plants and nurture them to full growth, some gardeners believe the only true way to grow vegetables is to start off at the very beginning. This takes a degree of dedication, but the rewards are huge.
So where do you to start if you’ve never attempted the process before? Below are some of the more common questions about growing vegetables from seed.
Q. Is it easier to grow vegetables if you sow the seeds indoors or outdoors?
A. It all depends on which vegetables you want to grow, when you want to start, and where in the world you live. Plants sown indoors will eventually have to be transplanted outdoors, and unless you sow your seeds in biodegradable plant pots, so that both pot and plant can be transplanted into the ground, the plant will suffer some degree of root disturbance.
Vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, eggplant, leeks, onions, peppers, and tomatoes tolerate root disturbance better than other vegetables and benefit from an early start in the growing season – which is another reason to start sowing seeds indoors.
In some parts of the world, the growing season is relatively short, so if you want to make the most of it, it’s best to sow seeds indoors. This way your vegetables will be well established and on their way to yielding when the growing season’s at its peak. Furthermore, with hard-to-germinate (sprout) seeds, sowing indoors gives you a better chance of providing the right environment for the seeds to germinate (e.g. temperature, light).
Q. What do I need to sow seeds indoors?
A. The size of the seeds will determine the size of the container you sow them in. Most gardeners sow their seeds in seed raising trays, but you can use a variety of containers including egg boxes and the bottom halves of juice cartons (pierce a hole in the bottom for drainage). Whatever you use, make sure it’s deep enough to enable the seedling to develop a good root system before being transplanted outside. Plant bigger seeds one to a cell, and smaller seeds two or three to a cell.
Once you’ve planted your seeds, sprinkle with a thin layer of soil, and give them a thorough watering, taking care not to wash them away. Place your seeds in a warm position with good light but out of direct sunlight. To minimize disturbance, you can water your seeds using a spray bottle with a mister attachment.
It’s important to keep your seeds well watered so they don’t dry out. Placing a sheet of cellophane over the seeds once they’ve been watered will help trap moisture. Once the seeds germinate remove the cellophane.
Remember that while you may be eager to start sowing, if you begin too soon the soil outside may not have warmed up sufficiently to accommodate your seedlings when it’s time for them to be transplanted out. If in doubt, refer to the instructions on the seed packet for general guidance as to when you should start sowing.
Q. What do I do when they’re ready to be moved outdoors?
A. When transplanting seedlings that have been grown indoors to the great outdoors, you have to acclimatize them to their new environment. This is called “hardening off.” With the seedlings still in their pots, place them in a protected area with indirect light for a few days. If frost is forecast, bring them indoors overnight. Shade-loving plants can be planted out after a few more days of being outside.
If your plants are destined for a spot that will receive full sun, give them a few more days in the shade, and then place them in the sun for an hour on the first day, gradually increasing their exposure to the sun each day for about a week, and then plant in the ground.
Q. And how do I transplant them into the ground?
A. If you’ve sown your seeds in biodegradable pots, you can transplant both pot and seedling: gently tear the pots down the sides to allow the roots to push through before placing in the ground. Also remove the top of the pot to prevent it sucking moisture from the soil.
If possible, transplant your seedlings on a cloudy day, or late in the afternoon. It can take them a little while to adjust after having been transplanted, so it’s best if they don’t also have to contend with the sun when it’s at its hottest.
Q. I’m not sure I can be bothered with starting my vegetables off indoors. Which ones are best for planting outdoors?
A. If you want to sow seeds directly in your garden or containers outside, then most root crops (beets, turnips, parsnips, and carrots) can be started off relatively early outdoors. In addition, crops such as beans, peas, and corn don’t like to be transplanted, so if you want to grow these vegetables, you’re better off planting them directly in the soil outside.
Q. How early in the year can I start sowing seeds directly outdoors in the ground?
A. This depends on where you live. While most seed packets give recommended sowing times, you should always check that the soil in your garden is ready. If the soil isn’t warm enough (above 65°F), the seeds are likely to rot in the ground before germinating.
You can use a soil thermometer, which you can buy at a garden store or online, to check the temperature of the soil. If the soil’s too cold and hard or water-logged, then you’ll either have to wait a while or consider sowing indoors. Once the soil’s ready, dig it over, breaking up any lumps with a garden fork, and rake it until it’s fine and crumbly.
Q. Where exactly do I put the seeds?
A. As a general rule of thumb, the larger the seed, the deeper it should be planted. Larger seeds, such as beans, can be planted individually, while smaller seeds (e.g. beets, cucumber) can be planted two to three seeds per hole. Refer to the instructions on the seed packet for information on how deep and how far apart from one another the seeds should be planted. Or check a seed planting chart.
Q. What do I need to do when the seeds start sprouting?
A. Regardless of whether you’ve sown your seeds indoors or outdoors, once the seedlings emerge and are an inch or so high, you will need to thin them out (if you’ve sown more than one seed per pot or position in the ground). Thinning out leaves enough room for those plants left behind to grow to their full potential.
There are generally two ways in which to thin out: For smaller, delicate seedlings, gently remove the weaker looking seedlings by cutting the stem at the point at which it meets the soil and then discard. For sturdier seedlings, very gently remove them all from the soil, separate them using a pencil, taking care not to touch their roots, and then re-plant in individual positions in the ground.
You may also need to “pinch back” (pinch off with your fingernails) the plant’s second set of true leaves. The first set of leaves a plant produces are called seed leaves, which are then followed by true leaves. Pinching back encourages bushy growth along the plant’s branches.
However, gardeners are divided as to whether it’s necessary to pinch back the leaves on vegetable seedlings, so you may need to find out what works for you. Remember that growing any plant from seed is a case of trial and error, so don’t expect to get it right first time.
Remember to lavish lots of tender loving care (including water) on your seedlings, and then look forward to harvesting a bumper crop of wonderful tasting vegetables in the months to come.
Want to learn more about growing vegetables from seed?
You Grow Girl has a great guide to starting vegetables from seed for beginner gardeners.
The University of Missouri Extension shows you how to start a vegetable garden from seed, in great detail. From choosing seeds to soil mixes and containers. It’s all there!
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