How to Grow Your 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,
I find this stage of gardening to 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, when you’re starting this whole process can seem like alchemy.
If you are starting the seeds with the intent 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.
"Since I started implementing Biointensive techniques to start our seedlings, the stress of getting seeds into the garden has largely gone away."
1. How do I start 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 all eight elements of the technique are being followed.
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.”
2. What should I start my vegetable seeds in?
The main takeaways I got from John’s book, “How to Grow More Vegetables,” is that the most effective way to start seedlings is in flats.
Long, rectangular shallow trays such as the one shown below are best. They are often called 10/20 trays because of their size in inches.
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 own seed flats from wood.
"It is quite normal to plant 180-300 seeds in one flat."
3. How far apart should I space my seeds?
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.
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 they are buried too deep they’ll never end up germinating.
4. When should I start my seeds?
I start my seeds all-year-round.
Some people in temperate climates are surprised by the fact that they can grow outside of the warm seasons.
If you would like salads and would like to 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 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”
5. How do I transplant my seedlings?
- Make sure you harden off your transplants outside a few days before doing the transplant.
- Pick wet days to do the transplanting to reduce plant shock and
- Make sure that half the root and stem structure goes underneath the soil when you perform the transplant.
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 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 seeds that were small, broadcasted the seed around the tray, and ended up with patches of intense growth that you have to separate (usually unsuccessfully) in order 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 that their leaves will touch 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 greatly 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 but for most vegetables, flowers, and herbs it’s a simple repeatable process that helps me to focus more on seasonal timings and harvests.
There are a few additional tips on transplanting I’d like to point out:
- When you are transplanting 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 quite good at adjusting to curling or bent roots.
- I like to use a dibber.
Shovel Technique (for many seedlings)
If you are planting leafy greens, it takes quite a few plants to produce a decent harvest and the roots are quite long and delicate.
Transplanting a flat of 180 plants can easily 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 quickly dangle in a half dozen seedling roots.
I then remove the shovel and let the soil spring back without too much disturbance and pin the roots naturally with a little 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
Please check out the "Seed Starting Cheat-Sheet."
It summarizes information in this article and gives some links to good resources for further information.
Below, watch a quick video on how to start seeds according to their size.
In August 2020, I'll be covering Plant Choice!
- How to get four or more crops a year in the same location
- How to observe the patterns in your space to create your Planting Calendar
This article is part of a series called, "The Garden Journey"