One of the best ways to get ahead in the vegetable garden and save money is to start your own seedlings inside, from scratch.
In the garden centre, the seedling punnets can be pretty expensive at $2-$3 for only 6 or so seedlings. A packet of seeds is that price but for 100 seeds! What you are really paying for is the time that was spent growing the seedlings.
A little preparation and planning now can mean a full vegetable garden for only a little money.
I start some of my spring seedlings nice and early but I won’t physically plant most of the seedlings into the garden until mid/late October when the ground is much warmer. Even if the air feels warmer as the weather warms up, the cold ground takes a lot longer to warm.
In the meantime, while the weather is warming, my seedlings will get moved to bigger containers as they outgrow their starting ones, and a glasshouse when they get bigger. If you don’t have a glasshouse or much room in the sunniest spot of your house, then don’t plant too many seedlings all at once. Some seeds such as pumpkins and zucchini do much better being direct sown in the garden when the soil has warmed up but as in my own garden I have a very short growing season because of lack of sun, I start mine earlier. Assess your own garden and space before deciding when to start.
Everything in the nightshade family such as tomatoes, eggplants, capsicum and, chilli can all be started inside late winter/early spring as they need a long growing season. They can be transplanted to bigger pots as they grow and keep them in a sunny space.
If you have access to a glasshouse you can start cucurbits such as melons and cucumbers early spring too if they will end up in there. If you don’t have one of those, it would be best to wait 4-6 weeks before your last frost date before sowing those inside.
Depending on where you are situated and the chance of frost in your area, the date of planting in the garden may have to be pushed out later.
What you need:
- A warm and light space. Warmth is most important as the seed germinates, but light becomes vital when the seed pops through the soil. If your seedlings don’t get enough sunlight they’ll become thin and ‘leggy’ as they search for the sun. If you don’t have a sunny window, invest in a grow light like this one. They aren’t too expensive and the LED red and blue lights mimic the sun.
- Seed Trays- There are many different sorts you can get, including biodegradable ones like jiffy pellets that can be planted straight in the ground.
- Seed raising mix- If you’re not using jiffy pellets which include the soil, an organic seed raising mix will give your seeds a great start. If you’re on a tight budget you can make your own seed raising mix, here.
- Labels (for what you planted and the date)- As much as you think you’ll remember, trust me, you end up forgetting what you planted and where and when. Labels are essential!
- Watering- Something that waters gently, like a spray bottle, so the soil doesn’t move around too much and disturb the seed.
- Seeds- of course, you need seeds.
This part isn’t compulsory but you can soak larger seeds, like beans and pumpkin before planting. It shaves off even more time as it will soften the protective seed coat and let the seedling emerge quicker. This is especially helpful if you’re starting your seedlings off later and you need to catch up on time!
Place them in a bowl of water for 8-12 hours. After soaking, take care when handling the seeds as they’ll be more delicate and plant them in your seed trays straight away.
There are many different seed trays available, including using what you have at home.
A plastic container with a few holes punched at the bottom will work fine, but for certain seeds, I like biodegrading containers that can be planted in the garden without disturbing the seedling roots. This is especially important if you’re starting seedlings like beans, beetroot or artichokes inside which don’t transplant particularly well.
Biodegradable seed trays could include cups made from newspaper, egg cartons, cardboard boxes or Jiffy pellets They are little, compressed pellets made from peat. They expand as you add water and provide all the nutrients that your growing seed needs until it is time to transplant in the garden. Once it is time, you can pop the whole thing in and it will decompose in the soil
To keep things extra warm, you can place your seedlings in mini greenhouses.
You can buy them like the one pictured above, or make your own.
Place your seedling trays in a large container that can that has higher sides than the seedling trays. Cover that container with plastic wrap and punch a few holes in it for aeration.
If you’re not using jiffy pellets which include the soil, fill your seed trays with seed raising mix wet the soil thoroughly. Let any excess water drain out before sowing seeds. Sprinkle your seeds over this moistened soil and gently press the seeds into the soil. You can add a small layer of soil over the top of the large seeds but for the smaller ones, you won’t need to cover them. Pressing them down will suffice.
Keep your soil moistened daily or as it dries out, but don’t wet it too much that it gets waterlogged.
Make sure to label what you have planted and include the date that you planted the seeds. This is so you can keep a record of how it is growing and know when it should be ready.
Transplanting and hardening off
As your seedlings emerge, the first set of leaves it grows are the seed leaves and aren’t considered the ‘true leaves’, the next set of leaves it grows however are. Once your seedling grows two sets of true leaves, you can start hardening it off to prepare it for life outside.
Place your seed trays outside on a calm day for 3-4 hours so they get used to the sunlight and outside temperatures. Decrease your watering to every second or third day. Slowly increase their exposure to cooler temperatures.
As the ground warms and there is no risk of frost anymore, your hardened plants can be transplanted. Don’t rush this step though, it’s not worth the risk transplanting them too soon only to lose them to a cold snap.
After transplanting your seedlings, water them well with a seaweed tonic to avoid transplant shock.