With the new year in full swing, vegetable gardeners are already thinking about what to plant for the spring garden. In the Deep South, tomato and pepper seeds are already being started in the greenhouse, while our northern neighbors still have plenty of opportunity for cool-season crops like broccoli and cabbage.
Regardless of where you are, seed starting is a vital skill for the homesteading lifestyle. Saving seeds from the previous year’s crop makes for a truly self-sufficient gardener. To save seed, you must use open-pollinated, non-hybrid varieties. Another benefit of seed-saving is that the vegetable varieties you grow will become better adapted to your local environment year after year.
Starting seeds in a greenhouse is beneficial for “cole” crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, as they will get a quicker start in the controlled conditions of warmth and moisture. Starting tomato and pepper seeds in a greenhouse is essential for timely fruit production, since they take a long time to grow big enough for planting in the garden.
Rodale’s Organic Life has created a handy seed starting chart that you can fill out to determine when to start seeds and when to plant out in the garden, depending on your hardiness zone or average frost-free date. If you can’t find your frost-free date, call the local extension office.
“Print the seed starting chart below. Write your frost-free date in the blank space at the top of the chart. Get a calendar and add or subtract the number of weeks in the "Safe To Set Out Time" column. This is the "Setting Out Date." It tells you when you can safely plant the crop in the garden. Write it in the last column. Take each date from Column 5 ("Setting Out Date"), subtract the number of weeks shown for that crop in column 3 ("Weeks from Sowing") and record that date in column 2 ("When to Start Inside").”
The materials for starting your own seed can be made at home. All you need are trays, containers, a potting medium, labels and marker, and the seeds.
Make sure that the seedlings get plenty of direct sun. A windowsill is usually not sufficient and will produce weak, leggy seedlings.
DIY Seed Tray
It is useful to have some type of tray to hold your containers. These can be made with wood from pallets or whatever is lying around, although it is best to avoid treated wood, so the chemicals don’t leach into your potting medium. A size of 12 inches by 24 inches will be easy to handle. The sides should be about 2 inches tall.
Fasten the four side pieces together with wood screws, and then screw the bottom pieces into the sides. Make sure to allow for drainage by leaving spaces between the bottom boards or drilling ¼ inch holes in the bottom.
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DIY Seed Containers
For containers, you can use a variety of materials like milk cartons or small plastic containers with a hole poked in the bottom to allow for drainage. Newspaper pots are an excellent DIY choice.
To make newspaper pots, cut 4-inch strips of black-and-white newspaper. Wrap each band around the lower half of a jar or a can a few times, and secure it with a piece of tape or a flour-and-water paste. Then crease and fold the bottom of the newspaper around the bottom of the jar or dowel, and slip it off. Set the newspaper pots in your homemade tray, and when you fill with the potting medium they will support one another.
DIY Potting Medium
The potting medium must be loose and well-drained so the tiny roots can penetrate and spread out. The true homesteader will have a supply of good compost, which is an excellent choice for seed starting as well. Use screened compost and mix with perlite or vermiculite to achieve good drainage.
Finely ground pine bark or cotton gin waste can be used as an alternative to vermiculite, which will also serve to hold moisture. Rice hulls can be used as an alternative to perlite. Whatever you use, mix it about half and half with the screened compost.
The seed itself contains enough nutrients for seedlings to begin growth, so do not add fertilizer at first. After they develop their first true leaves, a weak fertilizer can be added, although compost will have everything needed until it is time to plant in the garden.
Moisten the potting medium before adding to the containers, and you are ready to begin sowing seeds. Small seeds like the cole crops and tomatoes and peppers are planted at a very shallow depth—only about ¼ inch deep. Plant two or three per container, and thin to one seedling after true leaves develop. Research the specific crops you will be sowing.
After the seeds are sown, moisten the soil again and cover the trays with plastic. Uncover as soon as you see the first seedlings appear. Don’t forget to label the containers with popsicle sticks or something similar, especially if you are growing different varieties of the same vegetable.
When the plants reach the appropriate size, harden them off and then plant according to the chart you have filled out. Enjoy the harvest to follow!