Your Own Starts
your own plants from seed can give you a wider choice of cultivars than
what you can often find as transplants at the local garden center. It
also ensures that you will have healthy plants at the right time to set
If you want the very latest types of plants or want to try growing
heirloom varieties, you usually have to get the seed from mail-order
Once you have the seeds in hand, however, you have to get them to
germinate and grow in order to have useable transplants for the
garden. And this is where many gardeners face
Sometimes the seed fails to germinate or, once germinated,
it doesn't grow as it should, resulting in poor
Growing plants from seed is not complicated if you know a few basic
seed germination tips.
Many seeds retain their viability for several years if stored
correctly. There's a simple test called the "rolled towel" or "rag
doll" test that, though simple, is used by the pros.
a known quantity of seeds on a paper towel. For example, use 10 for
large seeds such as squash and beans or 25 for smaller seeds like
cabbage. Fold the towel around the seeds, moisten it and squeeze out
the excess water. This is your "rag doll". Place the rag doll in a jar
or plastic bag. Loosely cover the jar or bag, and in about 10 days,
count how many seeds germinated. If 75 to 100 percent germinate, plant
as you normally would. If 50 percent germinate, plant the seeds twice
as thickly as recommended. If substantially below 50 percent, toss the
old seeds and head for the local garden center.
crops, like radish, spinach, peas and beans, don't need extra
time to mature and so are rarely transplanted.
Beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, kale,
lettuce, parsley and tomato benefit from a longer season, reestablish
easily and are good
candidates for transplanting.
Celery, eggplant, onion and peppers also need a little longer season,
but have more difficulty establishing a new root system after
transplanting. Transplant these, but try not to disturb the root system
corn, cucumber, muskmelon, summer
(including zucchini) and watermelon regenerate damaged roots slowly.
Grow them in individual containers such as peat pots that can be set
into the ground without disturbing the roots. Set the transplanted pot
with the rim below the soil level to prevent water from being wicked up
and away from the roots.
time it takes to grow a transplant depends upon the species, growing
temperature, and how large a transplant you want. Most vegetable
transplants should be stocky and about six inches tall. Taller plants
are more apt to bend or break when set outside.
a general rule, try not to disturb the roots of any transplant more
and transplants grow better with night temperatures about 5 to 10
degrees cooler than day temperatures, though we don't completely
understand why. This can be difficult to do in the home, but try it if
you have the equipment.
daytime temperature for tomatoes,
eggplants and the vine crops at about 75 degrees and the night time
temperatures about 65 degrees.
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts do better with
daytime temperatures at about 68 degrees and nighttime temperatures at
about 58 degrees. If you have no easy way to control temperatures, then
aim for the middle of these temperature ranges.
Some gardeners pick dates at random when sowing seed indoors.
often results in very tall, overgrown, poor-quality seedlings because
they were sown too early.
Sowing schedules are based upon knowing how long it takes to produce a
useable transplant from seed (number of weeks) and when you can safely
plant the resulting treggplant and
require 8 to 10 weeks, while
tomato, cabbage and brassicas need 6 to 8 weeks, and lettuce, melons
and cucumber about 4 weeks.ansplants outdoors
frost-free dates for your area).
For example, zinnias or tomatoes take about four to five weeks to
produce useable transplants for the garden from seed. They
also tender plants, preferring to be placed outdoors after the frost-
free date. If your frost-free date is May 15 and it takes
five weeks to grow transplants, the seed needs to be sown between April
5 and 12 (four to five weeks ahead of the frost-free date).
Eggplant and pepper seeds require 8 to 10 weeks, while
tomato, cabbage and brassicas need 6 to 8 weeks, and lettuce, melons
and cucumber about 4 weeks.
Sowing dates for various types of seed can be found in books and
catalogs, or from your local County
Knowing the number of weeks of growing time and whether the plant is a
hardy, half-hardy or tender plant will help guide you on proper sowing
When assembling seed-starting materials, remember that the
container needs to have drainage holes. You can use just about anything
for a growing container, but be sure it's clean. If
you recycle and use old nursery flats or cell packs, make sure they are
washed clean with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach and
nine parts water).
The germination medium needs to be sterile and well drained, yet retain
some moisture for germination and be well aerated.
Once your container is filled with the germinmation medium, place the
container in a shallow tray filled with water. This allows the medium
to be pre-moistened by drawing water up from below. Once the
surface is moist, remove the container from the tray and sow the
seed. Cover seed lightly with media.
The best germination is achieved when the media stays uniformly moist
and warm. Cover the container with a piece of plastic or insert the
container into a plastic storage bag and set it so it receives some
type of bottom heat to keep the medium at about 70 to 75 degrees. The top of the
space in the laundry
room will be fine. Light
is not critical at this point for most seed. Keep an eye on
container for both moisture and the first signs of seed
Cover your flat or
saran wrap and tuck somewhere warm until
the seeds germinate, like
Once they start to come up, remove the plastic covering and move the
container to the brightest, sunniest spot possible with a little cooler
temperature, a little less moisture, and good air circulation. These
conditions result in slower growth and stockier seedlings.
soft growth is not desirable.
If suitable light is not available
naturally, use cool white
fluorescent lights. Place the lights so they are about three
four inches above the tops of the plants and leave them on for 14 to16
hours per day.
Once seedlings can be handled easily, they should be
to containers. Use similar types of potting soils to fill these
containers and similar conditions of bright light, cool temperatures,
moderate watering, and good air circulation. Fertilize with a general
purpose liquid fertilizer at half strength.
Getting the plants accustomed to the outdoors in a process called
"hardening off." About two weeks before moving the plants into the
outdoor garden, place the plants either in a cold frame or set them
outside on the porch, patio, or balcony during sunny days and move them
back inside at night when it gets cold. With a cold frame,
sash can be lowered to protect the plants at night. Water less and
gradually expose the plants to wind, intense sunlight and
Moore-Gough, Montana State University Extension horticulturist; Greg
Stack, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
How to Grow More
Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts,
Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on
Less Land Than You Can Imagine
Plant and Nursery Catalogs