How to Start your Garden from Seed

Posted by N. Astrid Hoffman on

Starting your garden from seed?  It can seem like a daunting task, until you read some simple tips that can provide you with further guidance on your journey.  When I first started on this venture, in my community garden in Santa Monica back in 2008, I started planting with seeds.  At the time, I spent more time designing the spiral layout of my garden, rather than meticulously reading the backs of the packets or better yet picking up a local gardening book.  Granted I had been attending free gardening classes through Transition Town, but there was still a lot of science and overall basics to understand.  Even experts are constantly reading up on how to best grow and support maximum plant growth. 

I had minor success and ended up buying starts.  Now, looking back 13 years later and a seed company under my belt, I can see where my shortcomings were and where I clearly failed.  

Gardening takes an understanding of some basic principals for optimal success, such as sun hours, soil, what you can grow,  when to plant and of course considering the critters that you share space with.

You will find two different kinds of seeds available at most nurseries, they will either be open pollinated (OP) or hybrid (F1).  Understanding the two will provide you the option for seed saving.  Open pollinated means that any seed you save and plant again, it result in the exact genetics of the parent plant.  Hybrids on the other hand are a completely different bag, as they were crossed with many other plants and will not breed true to type.  Heirlooms are often considered treasures as they have a name, a place and taste, coupled with compelling stories of their origin.  Heirlooms have been passed down and are usually over 50 years old and are open pollinated.  Hybrids will always be labeled as a hybrid or F1.  Both hybrids and heirlooms can be organic. 

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Planting from seed provides you with plants that are more disease resistant and hardier. Growing from seed also opens you up to a larger offering of rare and heirloom plants, moreover you save money in the process.  Seed packets run about $3.00 and usually provide more seed than you need for a season and in some cases like tomatoes and peppers, you have enough seed for a few seasons.  There are small nurseries out there that provide wonderful starts that were grown with good soil and seed, unlike sourcing your starts from larger big-box nurseries, where starts were grown in large greenhouses where pathogens can easily linger and contaminate your seedlings.  

Understanding that seeds are a living breathing embryo helps you get a better understanding of what you are working with.  Seeds, innately have everything they need in order to create life.  They are constantly scanning their environment for a queue to begin germinating.  That is why temperature fluctuation, light, heat and moisture are detrimental to a seed.  Therefore never leave them in a hot car, by a heater or in the blazing sun.

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Over the years of owning The Living Seed Company, I have realized that there are some simple tips for first-time seed sowers to understand in order for an optimal harvest. 

  1. Understanding where you live and what you can grow, is the beginning of your journey in planning your garden.  Realistically not everyone can grow everything they want, due to a number of different factors such as sun hours, climate, space and critters.  Knowing who lives in your neighborhood and how to protect your garden from hungry friends is important.  Do you have vertical space you can use?  Taking advantage of vertical space is optimal when you are working in tight quarters.  Some plants grow vertically and others grow as a bush - knowing how your plants grow will help you plan your garden better.  Do not over-crowd your garden.  Initially, there will be a lot of room, but that room will quickly be filled up.  Plants, competing for nutrients will not thrive and will be more susceptible to disease and pests.
  2. Choose a location that gets optimal sun, vegetables require at least 6 - 8 hours of direct sun.  A southern or southwestern exposure is ideal.  If you live in a hot climate and your garden receives a lot of sun, that is something you need to also take into account.  Using shade cloth can give your vegetables a break, during hot summer months.
  3. What you are going to plant in is a consideration that will determine space and watering schedule.  There are many options such as in-ground gardens, pots, raised beds and alternative containers. What you fill those pots with is very important.  Vegetables need nutrients in the soil in order to thrive and produce nutrient-dense food. Familiarizing yourself with the many soil and compost options is a key to your success.   Knowing that the pots are made of and observe how quickly water evaporates is key to making sure your plants don’t fry in a black plastic pot (which I do not recommend), while you are at work.  Don’t forget to label your plants individually and take notes … trust me, you won’t remember.  
  4. Once you have figured those key factors, begin by choosing varieties that you enjoy eating.  This is the fun part but starting small initially will prevent you from getting overwhelmed later on.  It is easy to get excited about all the great things that you want to grow, but gardens take time, energy, weeding, watering and maintenance. 
  5. Plan your garden by how many people are in your household.  This will guide the quantity of plants and your need for planting in succession.  For example if you are a family of two and love eating salads every day, plant lettuce every week, so you always have fresh greens coming out of the garden.  The same could be said for the veggies like broccoli, cauliflower beans, herbs, etc.  Read the packet for guidance on what should be planted in succession and how often.  Once you get the hang of it, you will get into a rhythm.  Calendars can be helpful to remind you when to plant.
  6. Begin to understand how much fruit one plant provides.  For example, a tomato seed packet usually comes with 25 seeds.  You do not need 25 tomato plants, unless you have a very large household that loves everything tomatoes.  Usually a few tomato plants will suffice - perhaps a cherry, saladette and a slicer tomato?  Do the research, initially begin to understand what your harvest will look like and how many plants you will need to feed your family. 
  7. I usually recommend planting annual plants together and perennial plants together.  This facilitates things when you are clearing your bed, at the end of a season and can simply remove all your annuals together (perhaps tangled roots and all) and leave your perennials as is.  Annuals are plants that will not overwinter and will perish at the first frost.  Perennials, if properly cared for will return year after year.  Specific maintenance is beneficial to boast any nutrients that plant is requiring.   
  8. Once you have mapped out your garden, what you are going to eat, begin to understand what seeds want to be planted indoors and kept in a warm dome with a heated mat and which ones want to be planted outdoors.  Plants such as tomatoes, peppers and golden berries, to name a few, want to be nursed inside, even if you live in a hot climate like Miami.  Other varieties like your root veggies, think carrots & beets, want to be directly seeded into the soil.  They do not want their roots disrupted and want to be able to send them down as soon as they are planted. For the seeds that you start indoors, it is key that they be hardened off.  This is a process that requires taking them outside, during the day, for a period of time before they are planted.  This acclimates your seedlings to the world outside, meaning the elements like the wind and sun.  One week minimum is recommended.  Just do not forget to bring them inside in the early evening.  We do it for several weeks to a month as this strengthens their stems and overall plant structure.  If you work from home and are able to keep in eye on them and constantly water them, we highly recommend this method.
  9. Knowing your seed source is another key to a healthy garden.  Where are the seeds you are purchasing sourced from?  Many larger seed companies are sourcing overseas.  This means that the seeds are acclimated to a completely different zone.  There are family-owned or small seed companies, which usually grow their own seed and/or source it from good growers.  Small seed farmers are able to save seed from plants that were vibrant and healthy, which in turn produce seed that is also vibrant and healthy.  Large seed conglomerates will harvest all the seed in the field, regardless if it is diseased, languishing or less than optimal.  Avoid using seed that was taken from your favorite store-bought or farmers market veggie.  Often times, these are hybrids and it may take months of caring for this plant, before you realize it is not what you were hoping it was going to be.  
  10. Once you are ready to plant, don’t forget to keep the soil moist while the seeds are germinating.  This is a mistake that first time seed sowers make, including yours truly back in my LA garden.  Water is important to prevent your plants from wilting and using their energy to survive instead of thrive!  They also need even watering throughout most of their life.  Dry farming is an option if you are growing in the ground, have a high water table and think your veggies can reach it.  Nothing tastes better than a dry farmed tomato!
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Seeds are sacred stories.  When you begin to unlock the magic of planting a garden from seed, it is hard to go back.  There is a mystery unfolding before you and it is the mystery of life.  A single seed can reproduce itself hundreds of times over - it is abundant and life-giving.  May your curiosity to plant a seed be piqued and may your life never be the same!


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