How to Grow Plants from Seed: 5 Tips for Success


How to Grow Plants from Seed

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How to Grow Plants from Seed

Getting your plants started may seem, at first, a daunting process. But once you've taken that crucial, first step towards growing your own food, the best is yet to come.

You may have gotten your necessary materials together; pot, a packet of seeds, and soil.

You open your packet of seeds bury some seeds in the soil and water.

Then you wait and wait.

This stage of gardening can be the most frustrating and yet the one most rewarding for the patient gardener.

Sometimes you wait weeks, and nothing appears.
Sometimes many seedlings poke their way out of the soil.

However, this whole process can seem like alchemy when you're starting. If you are starting the seeds to transfer them outside, the process becomes even more confusing!

I've had whole flats of thriving seedlings I've transplanted outside die within two days of transplanting.

Hopefully the following 5 Steps to Seed Starting Success will help:

  1. Start Your Seeds using the "Grow the Biointensive" Way
  2. Start Your Seeds in Seedling Flats
  3. Space Your Seeds Correctly when Sowing
  4. Start Your Seeds at the Right Time
  5. Transplant Your Seeds Successfully


"Since I started implementing Biointensive techniques to start our seedlings, the stress of getting seeds into the garden has largely gone away."

1. Start your Seeds the "Grow Biointensive" Way

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who's suffered learning how to grow plants from seed.

I had limited success until I was directed to research "biointensive" growing (different than "biodynamic"), pioneered by John Jevons, founder of Ecology Action. His particular method in its entirety is called GROW BIOINTENSIVE and spelled out in that all-caps style means that you follow all the eight elements of the official technique.

The GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, although having some overlap with Permaculture principles, really stands out for its detailed research on starting seeds in flats and transplanting them efficiently into raised beds for maximum productivity.

When asked about the effectiveness of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, which is known to produce 2–6 times the yield with a fraction of the resources usually used to do the same, John Jeavons is the first to say,

"You are the solution, GROW BIOINTENSIVE isn't. Grow Biointensive is a tool. It's our choice what we do. If you don't do GROW BIOINTENSIVE sustainably, with all of its aspects, you're going to kill people with it."
How to grow plants from seed
In this article, we are only focusing on biointensive seed starting: one of many practices Jeavons teaches in his book, "How to Grow More Vegetables."

1. Start your Seeds in Seedling Flats

The main takeaway I got from Jeavon's book, "How to Grow More Vegetables," is that the most effective way to start seedlings is in flats.

Long, shallow, rectangular trays such as the one shown below are best. They are often called 10/20 trays because of their size in inches.

how to grow plants from seed
Notice that they do not have any holes for drainage because at the beginning stages of a seed's life, you want a lot of water to burst open the seed that you are trying to germinate.
For those who would like to use a non-plastic alternative, there are instructions at the back of the book for building your seed flats from wood.

"It is quite normal to plant 180-300 seeds in one flat."

3. Space Your Seeds Correctly When Sowing

In Biointensive growing, you spend time to make sure the seeds are spaced evenly with minimal spacing.
It's quite normal to plant 180–300 seeds in one flat.
The idea is to mimic nature, where seeds don't naturally land in long spaced out rows.
how to grow plants from seed
Seedlings don't need a lot of space for root or leaf development, so most of the directions on seed packets are overly conservative and don't affect the growth of the seeds (just the number of plants you can grow in one flat).
Another tip I've found immensely helpful that I've picked up from the book is to plant the seeds as deep as their size.
Most of us bury our seeds much too deeply; many seeds require light for germination, so if you bury them too deep, they'll never end up germinating.

4. Start Your Seeds at the Right Time

I start my seeds all year round.

Some people in temperate climates are surprised that they can grow outside of the warm seasons.

If you would like salads and harvest lettuce year-round, you can start your seeds every 2–3 weeks the first year. In the second year, you will find that as long as you harvest only the tops of the lettuce and leave the base for it to regrow, you can do so at much less frequency.

Of course, you should not start "cool weather crops" right before the summer. But you can start certain "cool weather crops" at the very end of summer, right before the fall, when the weather starts getting cool again. More on seasons "cool weather" and "warm weather" crops on the blog, "Planning your Planting Calendar"

Better yet, join our Monthly Garden Planning Sessions so you can be sure you are starting your seeds at the right time.

Join the Monthly Garden Planning Session

5. Transplant Your Seeds Successfully

  1. Make sure you harden off your transplants outside a few days before doing the transplant.
  2. Pick wet days to do the transplanting to reduce plant shock and
  3. Make sure that half the root and stem structure goes underneath the soil when performing the transplant.
how to grow plants from seed

Plant structure above and below ground

After your seeds have:

  • “Hardened off,” which means they have acclimated to the outdoor temperatures (hot or cold) and
  • You see their first two true leaves unfurling,

You would then transplant them into your garden in a way that maximizes space.

To illustrate this principle, have you ever planted a tray of seeds according to the seed packet directions and are leftover with half a packet or more?

Or have you planted small seeds, broadcasted the seed around the tray, and ended up with patches of intense growth that you have to separate (usually unsuccessfully) to transplant?

This philosophy of maximizing space carries over into the garden when you transplant the seedlings outside.

Instead of transplanting in rows, biointensive recommendations are to plant using hexagonal spacing where the plants are close enough to touch their leaves when they are at full size.

In addition to allowing you to grow the most plants in the same space, the foliage as it develops will start to cover the bare exposed soil and significantly reduce the effects of evaporation.

Some More Seed Starting Tips

Since I started implementing biointensive techniques to start our seedlings, the stress of getting seeds into the garden has largely gone away.

I still have difficulties starting certain perennial plants from seed. Still, for most vegetables, flowers, and herbs, it's a simple, repeatable process that helps me focus more on seasonal timings and harvests.

There are a few additional tips on transplanting I'd like to point out:

  • When you transplant a few tomato plants or squash, the technique doesn't matter that much because it only takes a few minutes to bury the roots and these plants are pretty good at adjusting to curling or bent roots.
  • I like to use a dibber.
how to grow plants from seed

A "dibber" or "dibble"

Shovel Technique (for many seedlings)

Planting leafy greens takes quite a few plants to produce a decent harvest, and the roots are pretty long and delicate.
Transplanting a flat of 180 plants can quickly take over an hour with a dibber (pictured above). A dibber is anything used to poke neat holes into which you would plop your transplant.
However, I've discovered that using a straight-edge shovel plunged vertically into the plant line and then wedged over yields a big enough gap to dangle in a half dozen seedling roots quickly.


I then remove the shovel, let the soil spring back without too much disturbance, and pin the roots naturally with a bit of patting to remove the shovel line.
With this technique, I can easily transplant a flat in about 30 minutes, which helps when you have a 2-year old son who loves to come along behind you and yank out the seedlings I just planted.

Digging deeper into how to grow your plants from seed

how to grow plants from seed

Check out the "Seed Starting Cheat-Sheet."

It summarizes information in this article and gives some links to good resources for further information.

Below, is a short video on how to start plants from seeds based on size.

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Comments 15

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  1. This is helpful, thanks. I don’t like having to tear the little roots that are intertwined when I transplant from the flat. How do you avoid doing that, or does that not matter as much as it seems?

  2. Love the tray idea for starting the seeds! Will you show how to transplant them once they are ready?

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      Yes, please!! Post your photo here or send an email and so sorry I missed this comment!

  3. Nicky, so glad to be a new part of your gardening family! Looking forward to the information in the next 30 days and wow it’s great. Hope you and your family are having a wonderful season

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  4. Have you connected with charter schools with your program? I am interested in looking into this through our charter for my two kids.


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  5. Would like to hear your thoughts on planting tomatoes in same location each year. Also, advice on tomato diseases and other issues.

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      Hello there, Yes! You can definitely plant tomatoes in the same location but it is all about the soil nutrition. That soil has to be absolutely teeming with good life!

      More to come on this topic and tomato diseases indeed.

      So sorry for the delay in writing this. We had hundreds of spam comments and I needed to wade through them one by one to get to yours.

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      Hi Richarder!
      It can be done. One African farm project led by Dr. Elaine Ingham showed tomatoes were consistently successful without rotation. It was all about the fertility of the soil. I encourage you to check out our blog on Soil Health here. While there are three major things we look at that make up healthy soil (structure, chemical components, and microbiology), often the most neglected component is the life in the soil that sustains soil health. We encourage you to look at a post on Soil Health to encourage you to promote the proliferation of these beneficial microbes that build soil fertility. Good luck!

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