The advantages of starting plants from seed include a wider choice of varieties than you will find at garden centers. Your plants will grow faster and be healthier than most purchased transplants. Finally, you get the satisfaction of watching your plants grow from tiny seedlings to full maturity.
Buy fresh, healthy seeds from a reliable seed company. For example, take a look at Johnny's Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com), High Mowing Organic Seeds (highmowingseeds.com) or Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com).
Store seeds carefully. Put seed packets into freezer-quality zip-top plastic bags. Keep them in an insulated container, such as a cheap Styrofoam cooler.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Suspend the fluorescent light fixtures by a chain to large hooks in a basement ceiling or the crossbar of a tall sawhorse. An automatic timer is essential, because the lights have to stay on 14 hours a day.
Fill the seed trays with mix to within an inch of the top. Water the mix thoroughly, allowing time for the water to moisten the mix all the way to the bottom. Plant the seeds, following the detailed instructions on the seed packet about depth and spacing. Place the tray under the lights, adjusting the fixtures so the light tubes are about 4 inches above the surface of the mix. Set the timer to give 14 hours of light every day.
Keep the mix moist, but not wet. As the seedlings emerge and begin to grow, raise the light fixtures so they remain about 4 inches above the plants' leaves.
Plants started indoors need time to adjust to outdoor conditions. For the first two days, place the trays in a shady spot outdoors where they will get no direct sun at all. Bring them in at night if the weather is cool. On the third day allow them to sit for about 6 hours in a place that gets some dappled sun. On the fourth and fifth days, let them enjoy 3 or 4 hours of direct sun. After that, they are ready to be carefully transplanted into the garden at the seed packet's recommended spacing.
Starting Seeds Outdoors
You will need compost, a garden hose with a nozzle that gives a gentle spray, a long-handled 3-prong cultivator, a garden rake, a shovel, garden twine, stakes, row markers, and a permanent marker pen.
Cover the garden area with about 2 inches of good-quality compost. Use the cultivator to mix it into the top 4 inches of soil, rake it smooth, and water well.
Mark the lines for your seeds with the garden twine and two stakes. Sow the seeds, following seed packet directions. Give the area a gentle watering. Write the plant's name on garden markers at the end of each row. Keep the soil moist, but not wet, and remove any tiny weeds that appear.
Inspect your seedlings closely every day. If you find insect pests eating the leaves, identify the insect and either remove them by hand or spray them with an organic insecticide.
About this Author
Peter Garnham has been a garden writer since 1989. Garnham is a Master Gardener and a Contributing Editor for "Horticulture" magazine. He speaks at conferences on vegetable, herb, and fruit growing, soil science, grafting, propagation, seeds, and composting. Garnham runs a 42-acre community farm on Long Island, NY.