Raising Plants from Seed

Starting Seed

Here are the basics:

  • You need a lightweight growing medium – for example, “Seed Starter Mix”
  • Containers with drainage
  • Seed
  • Plenty of good light

Growing Medium

Notice I didn’t say dirt? Garden soil is not sterile and can harbor pathogens that can harm tender young sprouts. It is also heavy and dense, making it more difficult for the new seedling to grow and develop, and often, it does not drain well, leaving your seeds sitting in too much water. You want a growing medium that has light, fine particles that drain well. It’s not that you can’t use topsoil, you can. People have been doing just that for over 11,000 years. It’s just that it’s easier (if somewhat more expensive) to use a light-weight growing medium; especially if you are just getting started in starting your own plants from seed.

Seed-starting mediums usually contain a mix of ground pine bark, ground peat-moss, vermiculite, and/or perlite. You can make your own by mixing equal parts of these or you can buy commercial seed starter soil at a garden center.

One thing to be aware of with these type of growing mediums, once peat-moss completely dries out, it becomes harder to wet. Most commercial growing mixes that I’ve used are at least a little damp when you first open the bag, so there is no problem getting them to absorb water. However, when I come back months (or a year) later to use some more, it has dried out to the point that I need to get it moist again. I’ll put as much soil as I think I’ll need in a plastic tub and add a little water. Mix it well by hand and let it stand a bit to hydrate. If it doesn’t feel damp, add some more water and repeat.


Whatever container you use, it must have drainage. There are a variety of small containers that are used to start seed. Many are available at garden centers or big-box stores. Most common are small pots made of compressed peat-moss. Peat containers are usually not reusable. You plant the entire container and the plant’s roots will grow through the compressed peat into the surrounding soil. Because water can easily penetrate the compressed peat, it does not need additional drainage. This makes them easy to use, but, of course, they must be purchased. You decide if the ease of use is worth the cost.

I’ve also seen people use eggshells as containers. When ready to plant, you gently crush the eggshell and plant it whole; the shell provides calcium to the soil. Just remember that an eggshell does not have any drainage, so be careful not to over-water them. On the other hand, an eggshell doesn’t hold much soil, so be careful not to let it get too dry.

Many containers can be used to start seed. I’ve seen foam egg cartons used. Just poke a few holes in the bottom of each little cup to allow excess water to drain out. You could probably do the same with the containers that yogurt or sour cream come in. Almost any container can be used as long as you provide holes in the bottom for drainage so the seedlings don’t stand in water.

I’ve bought plants at garden centers that come in what are called cell-packs. The plants come 4-6 per pack. After removing the plants from the cell-pack, you can fill it with a light potting soil and reuse it to start your own seeds. The same can be true of the small 4″ or 6″ plastic pots that spring bedding plants come in.

Check the packet for planting instructions. Follow the packet’s directions for depth of planting. Once you are ready to set the plants in the ground, follow the packet’s guidance on how far apart to space the plants.

When planting, only plant 1-2 seeds per container – if the seed is fresh, you can probably get away with only planting one seed per pot. Even so, not all of them may come up. If the seeds are a year or two old, try 2 per pot. If they both sprout, you can snip off one of them leaving the stronger to grow.


You need to have pretty good light to start seedlings. Otherwise they will grow thin and stretched and may be too weak to stand up to the climate outdoors. You want to give your seedlings as much light as you can. A south-facing window is best since it can get direct sunlight all day. Unfortunately, I don’t have that. What I do have is a window that faces east and gets about 5-6 hours of sunlight. This works pretty well, but the seedlings still stretch a little.

Bottom heat – I once used a heating pad spread out across the top of a cabinet in front of a east-facing window. I set a towel on top of it and a tray to catch any water. I put my containers with seeds in the tray and turned the heating pad to its lowest setting. The gentle bottom heat helped the seeds to sprout faster than before. However, when using bottom heat, the soil will also dry faster, so keep an eye on it.

Transplanting – the first pair of leaves that the seedlings produce are the cotyledons or seed leaves. After that, the seedlings begin to produce true leaves. Once the seedling has produced 2-4 true leaves, it is ready to transplant.

Hardening-off – If you have been growing your seedlings indoors, they will need to be hardened-off before being transplanted outdoors. Here’s an article that does a good job of explaining it.


Starting Seed Outdoors

This year, I planted a variety of zucchini called Astia. It is compact enough to be grown in a medium-to-large pot, so I planted two seeds in the center of the pot. (Two, in case one didn’t sprout. However, if both sprout, the weaker one must be snipped out to allow the stronger to grow.)


For vegetables, this usually means in full sun. However, if you are growing in less than perfect conditions (as most of us are), try to find a spot that gets at lease six hours of direct sunlight. Fortunately, the front of my condo just barely gets six hours.

The more light, the better. Vegetables that set fruit (tomatoes, peppers, etc) can manage to grow in the six hours range. They will not be the full, bushy plants that full sun all day will produce, but you can get fruit from them. See my previous post, Growing in Less Than Full Sun for more information.



So, if you only use a few seeds out of a pack, can you keep the rest until next year? The short answer is yes, but…

The percentage of seeds from a packet that will sprout is known as the germination rate. For a newly-purchased packet of seed that was packaged for the current year, the germination rate is probably between 95-100%. However, each year after that, the germination rate will decline. This means that it may not be worth it to keep seeds longer than a couple of years.

Raising Plants from Seed – Planting Dates

Planting Dates

If you are planting seed to grow the plants out doors, you need to find out what the average dates for the first and last frost for your area. These two dates will help you determine when to plant each kind of seed. Some seed can be planted early and will tolerate some cold, for example, broccoli can be planted in the ground between mid-February and mid-March in my area. This is before our early April date for the last frost. Other varieties, like sweet potatoes, should not be put out until all danger of frost has passed. Check the seed packet, it will usually say something like, “Plant when all danger of frost is past.” Here in the Atlanta area the average date for our last frost in the spring is between March 30 and April 10. In real life, this can vary by two weeks in either direction, so be warned.

Check with your state’s Cooperative Extension service website for gardening publications. They are usually available in PDF format and free for the downloading. For example, I have one named “Vegetable Planting Chart.” It’s a two page chart that, for each variety of each vegetable, lists the days to maturity, the cultivars that grow well here, the Spring and Fall planting dates, and the depth to plant the seed. Although the chart is specific for Georgia, most states have similar publications for their local conditions.

When it comes to actually starting the seed in early spring, you have two basic choices; indoors or out. As I mentioned, some plants don’t do well until the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost is past. Again, your Cooperative Extension Service can help you out here. You can wait to plant or, if you’re like me (impatient), you can try starting them indoors and transplant them outside once the weather is warmer.

To be continued.

Raising Plants from Seed – Part 1

I originally published the following in Feb. of 2011. I’m re-publishing it now in preparation to continue the discussion of starting plants from seed.

The expense involved in gardening can be enough to make you question the wisdom of trying to grow your own vegetables (see $64 Tomato). 

Let’s set aside the argument that you can buy vegetables at the grocery store for less than what it ultimately costs you to grow them. (It’s true, but gardeners have many reasons other than price for growing them themselves.)

Besides, paying $2.50 for a 6-pack of indifferently cared-for seedlings may not be the wisest investment.

There is an alternative. You can start your own from seed.

You can buy a packet of seeds for the same amount (or less) that could grow dozens of plants. (Admittedly, this argument is weakened if you only want two or three plants.)

Note that I said could.

Let me confess up front that I’ve had mixed success growing plants from seed. Yet, the case for starting your own plants remains compelling:

  • You get to choose the varieties. While you can often find a few varieties as live plants, the number of varieties available from seed are often much larger.
  • The cost of a packet of seeds is usually less than a pack of 4-6 plants and can produce dozens of plants (or more).
  • You can buy the seed weeks or even months before the plants come available in the stores. This allows you to time your plantings around your local Last Date of Frost.

Furthermore, you are not limited to the selection of what is on the rack at your local garden center or big-box store. The major seed companies usually package their selections for large regions of the country and send them out to all the retailers in that region. They won’t have a selection that is specific to, say, the Atlanta area or even for Georgia. Instead, their selection would be for the southeastern United States. (Let me assure you that gardening in Florida and gardening in Virginia are two different things.)

Check with your state’s Cooperative Extension Service to find out which varieties do well in your area. For example, I have a leaflet from them that lists which varieties of each vegetable do well in Georgia. It took a little searching, but I found it available for download in PDF format on their website.

If your local retailer doesn’t have the selection you want, there are online seed sources, including some that specialize in heirloom varieties not carried by the big seed companies. Numerous places sell seed online. For example, one I’ve used is Renee’s Garden (http://www.reneesgarden.com/), but there are many others. (However, note that these smaller seed companies may not distinguish varieties that do well in different parts of the country.)

Patio Gardening

The following is a post that was in my draft folder for a couple of years. 

I shouldn’t complain about how little space I have to grow in.  In urban areas, a condo can be almost indistinguishable from an apartment. There, all you have are some rooms on an upper floor. No yard at all. In those cases you would be lucky if you even had a balcony. There you could at least have containers – pots, urns, etc. Fortunately, our condo is in the suburbs and so we have a little scrap of land around it.

When we first moved in, I was somewhat intimidated by the rules of the condominium compact. They state that all land around the units is held in common. That meant it wasn’t really mine to do with as I wish. That required a real change of attitude from owning a house. Since we had a small patio on the back, it seemed reasonable to buy clay pots and grow in them.

Many years ago, I came across an article on container gardening in Italy. In cities that have be established for hundreds of years, there is little or no open ground to grow in. There was a picture of  a large stone-paved plaza and a number of large terracotta containers arranged like a garden. We took that idea and lined the edges of our patio with clay pots. After the first year, I realized that the small 6-8 inch clay pots I had bought dried out quickly during the day, subjecting my plants to water stress. The obvious solution was to get bigger pots. After all, bigger pots equals a larger mass of soil which could hold more moisture.

It took a couple of years to realized that clay, despite its aesthetic value, wasn’t the best material in our situation. Since we had so little room, the pots and soil were left outside during the winter. In the spring, I would find some of the pots had cracked or pieces had flaked off caused by freezing. The flaking wasn’t bad in itself – gave the pots a weathered, rustic look. But after a few years of this the pots were falling apart.

Strangely enough, I had the most success with terra cotta colored plastic. (I know, I know… It is heresy for a gardener to succumb to using plastic pots… but I’ve been using the plastic for ten years now with only a crack or two in all that time.)

Growing in Containers: Clay or Plastic?

Ideally, vegetables should be grown in the ground. However, for those of us living in apartments and condos, that may not be possible. While I do have a scrap of land between my condo and the parking lot, the lawn maintenance people are somewhat indiscriminate in their use of weed-killer. There is the fear that the chemicals may be taken up by the root system of any vegetables growing nearby. That led me to growing in containers. After all, anything growing in a pot is, by definition, not a weed, right? (Definition: Weed – any plant growing where you don’t want it to.) The hope is that being in containers will protect them from the spray.

Clay or Plastic?

I originally started with clay pots. And when I say clay, I’m talking about old-fashioned, unglazed terracotta. Rockin’ it old school. I like them because they have a classic look, but after a winter or two they were cracking or flaking from having been frozen, thawed, frozen, thawed, etc.. If you live where the winters get below freezing, they don’t last all that long and are expensive to replace – particularly in the larger sizes. The problem is that clay is porous. Water wicks through it and evaporates off the outer surface. However, when the temperature drops below freezing, any water in that porous clay may freeze. Water expands when it freezes and this can cause the pots to flake or crack.

Clay’s porosity can be both good and bad. If you’re the type who habitually over-waters their plants, clay is more forgiving. Some of the excess will evaporate through the sides of the pot. The downside of that is that clay dries out faster and your plants will need watering more often.

After losing several clay pots to cracking, I began buying plastic pots in the same terracotta color. Since plastic is not porous, it does not dry out as fast. I was a little concerned that the plastic, exposed to sun and extremes of temperature, would deteriorate and crack as well. I’ve been surprised at how well they’ve held up. Yes, a few have begun to crack, but I’ve gotten 5-6 years of use out of them before they did. Also, plastic pots are lighter when you have to pick one up and move it, soil and all.

What size pot? Growing vegetables in containers – especially tomatoes – calls for a large volume of soil – 16-20 inches across the rim is a good size for plants with a large root system.  Leaf vegetables like lettuce can go in smaller containers, maybe a 10″ or so.

Drying Oregano

I have a nice little Oregano1 patch of oregano that always looks good and lush in the spring, but by early summer it blooms and its appearance goes downhill. I had heard that many herbs do not taste as good after they bloom, so right now would be a good time to harvest and dry some of it.

In the past, we dried it peasant-style; tying the stems in small bundles and hanging them up to dry. The problem is that it’s easy to forget that you hung it up and when you finally remember, it’s gotten dusty after hanging for a few months.

Another way was suggested by Alton Brown; use a box fan and cheap paper air filters. You spread the herbs over one air filter and place another filter on top of it. Then you bungee-strap the filters to the intake side of the box fan and turn it on. The filters hold the herbs in place and prevent them from getting dusty. I’m not sure how long it takes, probably a day or two.

A third way is to use a food dehydrator. They are not cheap, costing about $40-50 and up, but I’ve heard that you can often find them at garage sales for a lot less.Oregano

One of my favorite food blogs (SeriousEats.com) had a different take. Use a microwave. So we tried it.

We took a dinner plate and laid two layers of paper towels on it, then stripped the leaves from the stems and spread the leaves out in a single layer. We placed another layer of paper towels over the leaves and put it all in the microwave. We ran it on full for one minute and then for as many 10-20 second bursts (usually no more than one or two) as it took to get the leaves dry. We were amazed at how easy it was. In about 15 minutes we stripped and dried the whole bundle of oregano stems, crushed the leaves and filled a reused spice bottle almost half-full. The herbs maintained their color as well. Instead of being brown like supermarket oregano, they were a little darker than their original color.

The only down side was that after about third plateful, the plate got very hot. So hot that I had to use hot pads to handle it. If we had a larger amount to dry, it would have been better to have several plates and switch to a cool one when the first one got hot.


Years Later

I’m back.

I should probably know better after being gone so long, but here I am.

My condo gardening experience has had ups and downs in the last several years. The main thing that has changed is that I’ve stopped growing in the ground and am using large plastic pots filled with potting soil instead. (I’m talking 16-17 inch across the rim.) Since we live in a condo, the grounds are managed by a landscaping company that sprays weed killer too liberally around the units. My wife worries that the chemicals will get in the soil and be absorbed by the vegetables, so we grow in pots now.

But it can be expensive. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it. The potting soil to grow them in is not cheap, nor is buying 4″ pots of vegetables at the garden center at $2-$4 a plant. (I remember an article some years ago about the $45 Tomato. Pointing out that, given the expense, you could buy many times the numbers of tomatoes at the store than you could get growing them yourself.)

So why do it? I don’t really have a convincing answer other than, for a gardener, there’s a gravitational pull to plant something every year when spring comes. I find myself turning off the road when passing a garden center or wandering over to the garden department when at one of the big box hardware stores. I may have come in for a part for my grill, but leave with a handful of spring bedding plants.

So I’ve taken up this blog again. It’s not that I’m an expert in small space gardening. What I really want from this blog is a conversation with other people who want to garden, but also have very limited space in which to do so. I want to learn what they are doing and how they have met the challenges of their own version of condo gardening.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.