How to grow a plant from seeds
Select the best seeds for your climate and watch them thrive.
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You’ve prepped your soil, filled your containers, and you’re ready to start planting your garden—but the garden center is sold out of your favorite tomatoes. Or maybe you want to grow a vegetable that isn’t offered by many retailers, like salsify, bitter melon, maxixe, or callaloo. It’s time to take your garden to the next level, and learn to start seeds.
Starting seeds is easy with a little know-how, and some popular plants like corn, melons, carrots, peas, sunflowers, and morning glories, are actually easier to grow from seed than garden-center transplants. Here’s how to get started.
What you’ll need:
- Dirt! Either a yard, or a container with drainage holes in the bottom filled with potting soil
- Water: a mister, a watering can with a detachable “rose,” or a watering wand or spray nozzle hose attachment
Step 1: Decide what you want to grow
If you’re a first-time seed starter, choose your veggies and flowers from the Home Garden Seed Association’s list of the easiest plants to grow from seed: beans, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, pumpkins, radishes, squash, cosmos, sunflowers, and zinnias.
Slightly more adventurous souls can add marigolds to that list as well. These vegetables and flowers are the go-to plants for school projects and community gardens because their seeds are reliable, inexpensive, and easy to plant.
Where to buy seeds online, by region
There are some great places to buy seeds online, especially if you’re looking for something a little different from average hardware-store seeds. In general, it’s best to buy seeds from a grower in your region. They’ll stock seeds that work with the same types of soil and weather you’ll have in your garden.
Long-time grower Burpee published the first seed catalog back in the day, and continues to sell dozens of varieties of vegetables and flowers. If you’re looking for a new disease-resistant hybrid tomato, or the latest color of broccoli, Burpee is a great place to start. Burpee also offers a large selection of organic seeds, and heirloom varieties developed decades to centuries ago.
For northeastern gardeners, Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine offers a wide variety of cold and short-season adapted seeds, like watermelons that go from seed to plate in 75 days. Johnny’s also lists a huge variety of herbs, including 48 varieties of basil, and Asian herbs such as shiso.
Territorial Seed Company and Nichols Garden Nursery are great sources for gardeners in the Pacific Northwest. The Territorial Seed Company focuses on food and garden plants, including many heirlooms, while Nichols Garden also features lawn mixes and cover crops for a variety of conditions, and their New and Unusual page can be fun to scroll through.
California is bursting with farms and seed companies. Make life simpler by starting your shopping at Renee’s Garden, a “garden to table” company that offers helpful listings like a container variety page of smaller space-saving veggies, cut and come again lettuces, and bouquet flowers. For Asian vegetables from amaranth to water dropwort, check out California’s Kitazawa Seed Company.
The nonprofit Native Seed S.E.A.R.C.H. conserves and promotes the arid-adapted crops of the Southwest. Their seed selection represents the knowledge and heritage of more than 50 indigenous communities as well as immigrants. Look for dry-adapted tomatoes, beans, and corn, as well as more unusual plants like tomatillos, sorghum, and chiltepines.
Step 2: Determine the best time to start planting your seeds
Before you start tomato seeds, think about when you’ll be eating tomatoes. It’s no fun to realize a month after you’ve put your baby plants in the ground that they won’t have time to fruit before frost. Unless you own a greenhouse, your growing dates are limited by your local weather.
You need to get your plants producing during your growing season, the days between the last frost in spring and the first frost of autumn, which will kill your plants.
Step 3: Decide where to plant your seeds
You can start seeds outdoors directly in the ground once the weather has warmed up in spring, or plant them indoors in a seedling tray or any container with drainage holes. Each method has pros and cons.
Starting seeds indoors makes it easy to keep track of your seedlings’ progress and make sure that the little plants are getting enough water. On the other hand, indoor plants are vulnerable to being knocked over by pets, children, and clumsy spouses. Low light conditions inside your home can make your plants grow thin, weak stems as they try to grow tall enough to reach the light—stems that can snap while you’re transplanting your seedlings to their permanent homes.
Outdoor seeds never need transplanting, and have no problems getting enough light. However, it’s harder to monitor the growth of seedlings when they’re not sitting in our kitchen window, and young seedlings can dry out rapidly. Fresh, tender young seedlings are also favorite foods for rabbits, groundhogs, gophers, and many other critters. If you have wildlife in your yard, your plants will survive animal appetites better if you start them inside and wait until they’ve a little bigger to plant them out.
Step 4: Get your soil ready
Clear your sunny spot in your yard of weeds, or fill your container with potting soil. If you’re using a container press the soil in your container gently to eliminate air pockets, then water the soil until it’s evenly moist, not dripping wet. Don’t worry about plowing or turning over the soil in your yard — seeds don’t expect special treatment! If you’re using a container, make sure there are drainage holes.
Most flower and vegetable seeds will sprout vigorously in containers filled with regular potting soil. Seed-starting mixes are very fine-textured potting soil, which is helpful for starting very tiny seeds, but not necessary for most common garden plants. You can make your own potting soil by mixing garden soil with other materials that make it lighter and coarser, so it drains better. (Consider using compost or coconut coir instead of peat moss in these mixtures, as peat moss harvesting is not sustainable.)
A seedling tray can make seed-starting easier; many come with a drainage tray and a clear plastic cover to keep moisture in, and curious cats out. If you’re using your own container, wash and rinse it thoroughly before you plant your seeds. The University of Missouri suggests dipping containers in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water to prevent plant diseases. Let the container dry completely before planting.
If you think you’ll be letting your seedlings get fairly large before transplanting, consider starting your seeds in peat pots. You never have to take your plant out of the pot; just bury the pot in the ground, and the plant’s roots will work their way out into the surrounding soil.
All of the easy-to-plant seeds listed above sprout well at average temperatures of 60°F-75°F in a sunny spot outside or on a sunny windowsill. If your windowsill isn’t sunny, you may want to get a grow light to start your seeds off right.
Some plants will germinate well at temperatures below 60°F—peas, lettuce, spinach, and broccoli, to name a few—but most veggies and flowers prefer to stay warm. Hot-season plants like tomatoes, eggplant, and melons germinate best at 85°F. If you wait until the weather is that hot, the temperature will soon get into the 90’s which is hot enough to stunt plants’ growth and fruit production. The solution? Either sow more seeds, to make up for the seeds that don’t sprout, or start your seeds indoors on a seedling heat mat to give your little seeds the warmth they crave.
Step 5: Plant your seeds!
Follow the directions on your seed packet for how deep to plant your seeds, and how far apart. The general rule of thumb is to bury seeds twice as deep as they are long.
Some seeds need to sit on the surface of the soil to sprout, while others like to sit snug in the earth. Tiny seeds of petunias, begonias, snapdragons and lettuce need to sit on the surface of the soil, while finger-thick seeds for plants peas, beans, squash, melons, and cucumbers do better a half-inch deep. Most small-to-medium garden seeds should be planted about one-eighth- to one-quarter-inch deep in the soil.
Take a picture of your seed packet before you throw it away. If you’re sowing tiny seeds, it’s easy to plant a lot of them very close together, and you’ll need to thin out seedlings that are too crowded. Keep the picture so you can see the recommended spacing.
Step 6: Water your seeds
Your seeds need water to grow. The trick is to water your seeds without washing them away or drowning them. If you’re planting beans or sunflowers, this isn’t a problem, but it’s easy to flood petunias and lettuce off of your garden bed or seed-starting tray entirely.
If you’re starting seeds indoors, water your container thoroughly before you plant your seeds. Once you’ve put the seeds in the soil, cover your seeds with a plastic cover or a tightly-secured plastic bag to keep the moisture in.
Once your seeds have sprouted, continue to water them carefully. Gentle showers are safer than glugs from a hose or milk jug. For especially delicate young seedlings, use a mister, a watering can with a detachable “rose,” or a watering wand or spray nozzle hose attachment.
Step 7: Check in regularly
Check your seeds daily to make sure they’re still evenly moist, and water them gently if they need water. If you’re using a container, wait until the soil surface is almost dry before you water, and avoid drenching your plants so much that there’s a deep pool of water sitting under the container; your seedlings’ roots need air as well as water.
The seed packet should list “days to germination,” which is how long it should take your seeds to sprout. If you’ve put a plastic cover over your seedlings container, take it off as soon as the seeds have sprouted to prevent fungal diseases like damping off.
Step 8: Transplant indoor plants outside
When seedlings sprout, they usually have little round leaves that don’t look like the grown-up plant’s leaves. After another week or two, your little seedlings will develop their first “true leaves,” a sign that your little plants are ready to move out of their first home to a larger container or your yard. You don’t have to move them out immediately, but it’s easier for little roots to adapt to new conditions if you move them early.
Indoor seedlings need to “harden off,” or adapt to outdoor wind and light, before you put them in the ground for a successful move. A week or two before you plan to plant them, move your seedlings outside to a shady spot. Bring the seedlings in at night if the weather is going to be cold, or any time there are heavy storms.
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