The soil is ready, the season is right, it’s time to plant. Now what?
There are two ways of getting your plants in the ground: direct seeding in the garden and starting plants indoors that will be transplanted in the garden later. Below you will learn how and when to use both techniques.
All plants can be direct seeded in the garden and many plants do better when sown directly in the ground. However, to get a head start on the growing season or to maximize space efficiently, you may want to start some slow-growing crops indoors.
For example, we always start tomatoes and peppers indoors when it is still cold outside so that they can be moved out as already established plants when the weather warms up. By doing this, we get about a month’s head start and we can grow more spring crops in the ground that would have been used for getting the tomatoes and peppers started.
Conversely, there are many fast-germinating and growing crops that we almost always direct seed like lettuce, radishes, and green beans.
Because germination rates vary, you will always want to over-seed (planting more seed, closer together than the mature plants will be) when direct seeding. The spacing of the seeds will depend on the final spacing of the mature plants.
For example, lettuce seed which can grow closely together should be sprinkled in a very shallow trench. The seeds of broccoli, which need about a square foot each when mature, should be planted one seed every 3 or 4 inches.
A good rule of thumb is to plant the seeds at a depth of three times the length of the seed. Therefore, tiny lettuce seeds will be just below the surface and larger okra seeds will be a bit deeper.
No matter what you are direct seeding, the crop and harvest will benefit if you thin at least once (sometimes more often) early. Failure to thin will cause plants to compete with each other and never reach their potential. This is especially damaging for root crops like radishes and beets that need to bulb out underground.
When the plants are an inch or so high, use scissors or your hands to gently (you don’t want to disturb the roots of the surrounding plants) remove the weaker-looking plants. Leave one healthy plant every 3 or 4 inches. For larger plant varieties, you will need to thin again in a couple weeks until the spacing is appropriate for that variety of mature plants.
Go ahead and eat the thinnings! All baby plants are edible and many are sold in stores at high prices as “micro-greens.”
Containers: Almost anything can be used as a container for starting seeds. Many people choose reusable plastic pots/seed trays or ones made from fiber or peat that can be planted with the plant and will break down as the plant grows. Whatever you choose it should be 3 or 3.5 inches deep and have drainage holes in the bottom.
Growing mediums: You have many choices of what to fill your containers with. The choices comes with varying advantages and varying prices. Here are some of the options: peat moss, vermiculite (super heated until popped – mica), potting mixes, compost, and even soil from the garden. We recommend using a potting mix or seed starting mix. Most of them are a mixture of vermiculite or perlite, peat moss, compost, and soil.
Location: Germinating seeds need light, so find a sunny window, preferably with southern exposure or set up some white fluorescent bulbs wherever you choose to grow.
Once you’ve picked your growing medium, containers and growing spot, it’s time to fill the containers and get planting. Start by filling a bucket with potting soil and soaking it with water. Mix the water in so that it is nice and damp but don’t add so much that you make soup.
This will give your seeds a good head start with moisture and keep the soil from drying out as quickly. Also, you won’t have to water the seeds after planting them, which can potentially wash them out.
Next, fill your containers with moist soil and start planting.Plant two seeds in each container at a depth of about three times the width of the seed. Do not let your seeds dry out. Once they start germinating they must stay moist or they will die. Check on them each day and water gently if the soil is starting to dry out.
Transplant in the garden after a couple weeks when the plant looks healthy, strong, and established. Be sure that it is warm enough for your seedlings at night before sending your babies out to the garden.
Whether you bought them at your favorite local hardware store (Renfrow Hardware in Matthews is a great resource) or you started them on your window sill inside, you now need to get them in the garden so they can grow big and strong and make you lots of food.
Lay out all your plants in containers on top of the soil to get your spacing right in your garden. Check the seed package or plant tag for correct spacing. Once your spacing is set you can start planting.
Dig a hole larger than the root ball of the plant you are planting.
Gently put the stem of the plant between your middle and ring finger palm facing the soil so that when you flip the container over the plant is facing down and resting in the palm of your hand. Squeeze the container gently until the plant drops in your hand. If the plant is root locked (the roots have grown in a tight mess on the bottom of the container) gently break up the very bottom of the root area. This will promote new root growth once in the garden.
Place the transplant in the hole, gently fill the soil in around it and press down. This will ensure the roots contact the soil around it. The last step is to water. Always water well after you transplant.
Kids love seeing things germinate. If you are doing a lesson on germination with young kids, be sure to pick a fast-germinating seed (lettuce, radish, peas, beans). If you pick something slow like tomatoes they will lose interest and forget about the seeds. Seeds will germinate only with moisture.
A fun activity for kids: Put some lettuce seeds inside a folded moist paper towel. Put the paper towel in a zip lock bag and hang in the window. Spray once a day with a mist spray bottle to keep moist until seeds germinate. This activity allows kids to see the germination without soil blocking the view. And the sprouted seeds are edible!
By Henry Owen with assistance from Kathy Metzo and Carol Adams