Raising vegetables in your garden is a healthy, economical, and enjoyable way to provide food for your family – and if the harvest is particularly good, even your friends and neighbors. Homegrown produce has many advantages over store-bought alternatives: you can grow the variety that you’d like, you have complete control over the quality of the soil and any chemicals that are added, and it is environmentally friendly since minimal effort is required to get it from the garden into your kitchen.

Vegetable seedlingCredit: By Oledd (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the most common ways to grow vegetables is to purchase small plants from a nursery or garden center when it is time to put the plants outside. This is easy, but not cheap – especially if you intend to have a large garden. Also, many nurseries and larger chain stores only carry the most common, commercially-available varieties of plants. If you want an heirloom or other specific variety of the plant, you may be out of luck. Raising your own plants from seed offers the most flexibility and economy if you are willing to put in a little more work upfront.

Required supplies

To grow your garden from seed, you will need a few basic supplies: a good light source, a seedling tray or small pots, soil or another growing medium, and (optionally) a heat mat. You will also need a space where the seedlings can grow, undisturbed, for a few months in the early spring.

1. Light source

The easiest way to provide sufficient light to your growing plants is with a fluorescent strip light. Specialized kits can be purchased to mount the light, but you can also build your own setup with tripods, sawhorses, or any other structure from which to hang the light. Ideally the mount would be adjustable, so that the light can be raised a few inches at a time as the plants grow.

There are many choices for bulbs, ranging from inexpensive fluorescent tubes to very expensive, high-intensity grow lights. You can make the decision based on your anticipated usage. If you will be growing a few plants for just a couple weeks, you can get away with a cheaper solution. If you will be growing many plants with high light requirements for an extended time, it might be worth investing in a higher quality setup.

Fluorescent grow lightsCredit: By Dennis Brown (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsStandard fluorescent bulbs come in three standard sizes identified by diameter: T5, T8, and T12. For simple growing solutions, T5 or T8 bulbs that mimic daylight (with a temperature rating of approximately 6500K) will work best. T5 bulbs have the highest intensity output but are also considerably more expensive than T8 bulbs and fixtures. T12 bulbs don’t have sufficient intensity and are being phased out in the next few years anyway, so don’t invest your time or money into these. Whichever bulb you choose, remember that your light fixture must match your bulb choice – they are not interchangeable.

While the sun is a great source of light, it likely won’t work for growing vegetable seedlings indoors (unless you have a sunroom or other setup with lots of intense light). If you place your seedlings near a window, they will reach toward the window and grow thin and leggy, creating weak and unhealthy plants.

2. Seedling trays or containers

Specialized seedling trays are an easy, affordable solution to growing many plants in a small space. These trays are available from most nurseries and home improvement stores in late winter and early spring. The trays themselves are fairly standardized in size, while the inserts can offer a variety of individual cell sizes (72 or 96 plants per tray, for example).

Plants can also be grown in small pots or containers, but growing in egg cartons is generally not recommended. The container must provide adequate drainage and plenty of soil for the growing seedlings.

Whether using specialized trays or individual pots, the containers should be placed in a waterproof tray. The tray will collect water and dirt from the containers in order to protect your floors, as well as providing a reserve water source for the soil to absorb as needed. Particularly before the seeds emerge, it is best to provide water from the bottom by filling the trays, rather than watering from the top and causing the seeds to float away.

3. Soil or other growing medium

Sphagnum peat mossCredit: By Ragesoss (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsFor the best success with your seedlings, provide a growing medium that holds water well but is light enough that the young plants can easily push up through it to the surface. Avoid using heavier compost or any kind of soil that contains clay, as it is much too heavy for the tiny plants. Instead, choose a packaged mix for growing seedlings or create your own with a mixture of peat moss, screened compost, and vermiculite.

As your plants grow, keep the soil moist but not soggy. As recommended above, it is best to provide water via the bottom tray so that the soil can absorb water as needed.

4. Heat mat

Seedling tray heat mats are readily available at nurseries, indoor growing supply companies, or many internet stores. While not a required item, the heat mats can greatly improve the success rate with sprouting seeds by warming the soil about 10 degrees above room temperature.

Place the trays on the heat mats as soon as the seeds are planted to start warming the soil. Use the mat until most of the seeds have sprouted and begun to grow, at which point you should turn off the heat and allow the soil to return to room temperature.

Only use heat mats that are specifically designed for growing plants; never use heat blankets or other devices that were not intended for this application. Seedling heat mats are designed for 24 hour usage in a damp environment, but never allow them to become soaked with water!

Getting started

Once you have assembled all of the necessary supplies and you have purchased the seeds that you wish to grow, you are ready to get started.

Each type of plant will need to be started at a different time in order to maximize your success throughout the growing season. The seed packet should identify when to plant the seeds indoors – in most cases, this will be identified by a number of weeks or days before the last frost. Your local date of last frost can be found by searching on the internet – while this isn’t a guarantee, it is a good guideline that can be used for planning your garden. Work backwards from that date to decide when to plant your seeds indoors.

Follow the instructions for planting on the seed packaging. Some seeds need light in order to germinate, in which case they should be sown on top of the soil and not buried. Others should be covered with a certain depth of soil to promote sprouting.

Place the trays on the heat mat if you are using one and turn on the light to start providing light as soon as the seeds need it. It is best to use a timer with your light so that the seeds get a consistent amount of light each day.

Transitioning outdoors

Once the seedlings emerge, turn off the heat mat but continue providing light and water as you watch your new plants grow. When it is time to start transitioning the plants to the outdoors, do it slowly over several days. Place the containers outside in a sheltered location during the day, and then bring them back inside overnight to protect the fragile plants from the nighttime chill. After several days of this process, it is safe to plant the young plants in your garden.

Continue caring for your plants, providing sufficient water keeping the beds free of weeds. Harvest the vegetables on a regular basis so that the plants continue to produce throughout the season. Most of all, enjoy the fruits of your labor as you celebrate the harvest that began with such tiny seeds a short while ago.

Seedlings in rowsCredit: By Leon Brooks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended products for starting your seedlings

Hydrofarm CK64050 Germination Station with Heat Mat
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Hydrofarm JSV4 4-Foot Jump Start T5 Grow Light System
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Hydrofarm MT10006 9-by-19-1/2-Inch Seedling Heat Mat
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